"Eco-Cowboys" aims to bring ranching to television

Feb 12, 2010

Imagine this. You come in from feeding, flop down in your recliner, and turn on the Discovery Channel, expecting the usual overheated fare of tomb raiding and conspiracy theories. Instead, you are greeted by the familiar face of Baxter Black, iconic cowboy poet, author, and humorist, sharing his delightfully off-beat perspective on the world from the geographical and philosophical "out there" of the rural West. What you’ve tuned into is a television series that showcases the ecological benefits of ranching while celebrating ranching culture and history, and on cable TV, no less. Now, don’t go hunting for the program guide just yet. But if you think that a ranching show on the Discovery Channel is just too good to be true, it’s time to think again.

"Eco-Cowboys" is a 13-episode television series that began as the brainchild of Thomas Perry, film director and producer, who has joined forces with a small group of motivated individuals from the Western Legacy Alliance and Patrick Dorinson, writer and political commentator. Though the project is now only in the pre-production and fund-raising stage, the group has high hopes that "Eco-Cowboys" will be a tremendous success, not only financially, but as a vehicle for spreading the message about the environmental benefits and cultural importance of ranching to a vast international cable television audience. The show is anticipated to begin airing in 2011.

The master concept for the series is to focus each of the 13 episodes on a separate eco-theme, ranging from the benefits of grazing on rangelands, to the use of wind and solar power by ranchers, to the complexities of negotiating government regulations which more and more affect how ranchers operate. Within this format, ranchers who have won recognition for their exemplary conservation efforts will be showcased. But time will also be taken to acquaint the audience with the many ranchers who are using these same sustainable practices, and quietly make up the huge number of "everyday environmentalists" in the ranching community. Discussion with scientists will be included in the mix, as well as fun spots in the show for learning about cowboying and ranching culture.

The "Eco-Cowboys" series will also feature an opinion spot titled "The Cowboy Soapbox," written and delivered by host Patrick Dorinson. Here, Dorinson will take the opportunity to enlighten viewers of the political take on a chosen issue from a rural western perspective. A photo expose of the featured ranches by renowned western photographer David Stoecklein will highlight the beauty of the ranches and the intrepid character of the people who work on them.

The show will be rounded out by the hugely popular Baxter Black’s humorous spot "Out There."

Perry is a seasoned veteran in the world of television, having previously produced shows that have aired on the Discovery and American Movie channels, among other venues. Although Perry has not had much previous involvement working with the cattle industry, he has an intuitive grasp of ranching issues and limitless enthusiasm for the project.

Explains Perry, "'Eco-Cowboys" came out of a statement from a rancher who I was interviewing for another project. He looked across a fence at me, and said, ‘Well, you know, Thomas, ranchers and cattlemen were the first environmentalists.’ That lit a spark in my brain. In the process of investigating [this idea], it became obvious to me that the story needed to be told, because ranchers and the cattle industry are being portrayed ... in a very negative light, and are not shown the respect or consideration due them for the work they do."

Dorinson, who will be hosting the show, echoes this sentiment. "We like to call it ‘the greatest story never told.’ It’s a uniquely American story ... The problem is, every time this story gets told, it gets told from the negative side. ...[O]n a national news program, you get some reporter from New York coming out and he starts telling you what he knows about ranching cattle ... And that’s not learning what the business is, and it’s not presenting the right story. I think also the ... radical environmentalists have had their way all these years by trying to promote their agenda. We scratch the surface on their agenda, and [they don’t just] want to have some balance in the ecosystem. They say ...‘We’ve got to get the cows off’, and if you dig a little deeper, they’ll say, ‘By the way, we don’t want any transmission lines, we don’t want any solar panels, we don’t want any wind power.’"

Indeed, one of the key themes of "Eco-Cowboys" is to reclaim the notion of environmentalism, and place it squarely in the domain of ranching by showcasing the everyday environmentally-friendly practices that ranchers employ on the ground. Says Perry, "The environmental movement has touched the lives of many people, and I think the ranching industry has been slow to react [by not telling people] that they are part of it."

That is about to change. As Dorinson explained, the show will make a point of addressing specific environmental issues that viewers may have been misinformed about in the past by radical anti-grazing groups.

"Let’s tell the story," says Dorinson, "and let’s use the terms that the environmental community uses. You want to talk about sustainability? Good. Let’s talk about sustainability. You want to talk about grazing? Let’s talk about rest and rotation. [Radical groups] have gotten away with it for so long, that we feel that it’s time to turn the tables."

The "Eco-Cowboys" slogan, "Every day is Earth Day on America’s innovative green ranches," drives home the idea that ranchers are true-blue conservationists, even though their quiet form of environmentalism is not typically advertised on bumper stickers and tee shirts.

Another important theme of the show is to reacquaint viewers with the process of how beef gets from pasture to plate, an understanding of which many urban and suburban viewers simply lack. Perry believes that a realistic approach is important, and plans on addressing slaughter and butchering on the show, with discussion about the regulations that make these processes humane and safe.

But "Eco-Cowboys" won’t be all heavy-duty stuff. It is a television show, and it must first and foremost be entertaining to watch. That means that it can’t be all politics and science. It must be tempered with a healthy admixture of fun and what Perry calls "fluff."

Explains Perry, "We have a television show, so it will not answer every single question, nor will it have the opportunity to go into everything in detail. I think it will paint [with] a broad brush, to open the eyes of the general public who live in urban areas to what it takes to be a cattleman and a rancher in today’s world."

"Eco-Cowboys" will be shot in high definition, and marketed to the Discovery Channel, the new Discovery Green Channel, the National Geographic Channel, and similar venues.

Funding for the show is currently being raised through Western Legacy Investments. Independent investors are being sought to bankroll the project in order to give its creators more control over how issues are treated. Currently, combined investments of $300,000 are being sought to carry the show through to production stage. The actual production of the show will require an additional $3.5 million dollars in investment funds. Jeff Faulkner, executive director of the Western Legacy Alliance and one of the managing directors of Western Legacy Investments, indicates that interest in the show has been high. Investors who have come on board range from private individuals to industry-related businesses which plan to advertise during airing of the show.

Explains Faulkner, "We want to fund the whole thing. We want to fund all three phases so we can control content. By controlling content, I don’t mean we want to slant it in any way toward favoring us. We think we have a good story to tell; we want to tell it. We want it to be scientific, we want it to be [about the] facts, and we want it to [give] facts that can be backed up with science. But on the other hand, we don’t want to have to go get somebody else’s opinion every time we talk about a specific issue."

"Eco-Cowboys" presents the first real opportunity for ranchers to tell their story to a vast television audience, on their own terms. As Perry pointed out, this is a story that needs to be told, and he believes that the public is ready to receive it.

"I think the real story is the people," comments Perry. "The people who make up this group of individuals, who vary in the manner in which they speak, who vary in [how] they dress, but they all have the same core values, and I think that they are the stars of our show."

Dorinson agrees: "[T]he ... thing is to tell a great human story, about people who have taken everything that mother nature and mankind can throw at them and they’re still standing. It’s a uniquely American story, and it’s something that we should preserve, because if it goes away, it ain’t coming back."

For information on supporting "Eco-Cowboys,"contact Jeff Faulkner, Western Legacy Alliance Executive Director: 208/206-7309, or at www.westernlegacyalliance.org.

Visit the "Eco-Cowboys" Web site at www.ecocowboys.com to view a promotional video for the show. — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent