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All hat and no cattle? Cowboy poetry event boss talks funding

All of a sudden, everyone's talking about cowboys and their poetry.

The rawhide ruckus started yesterday, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid listed an Elko, Nevada convention among valuable programs receiving federal funding. "The National Endowment of the Humanities is the reason we have in northern Nevada every January a cowboy poetry festival," said the Silver State senator in a floor speech. "Had that program not been around, the tens of thousands of people who come there every year would not exist.” 

Republicans had a *ahem* beef with that, ridiculing Reid for waxing poetic about the program amidst talk of a crushing budget crisis.

"We're $14,000,000,000,000+ in debt, yet rodeo clowns still want to fund Cowboy Poetry Party," said Sarah Palin in a tweet Wednesday afternoon. "That must be 1 helluva high natl priority shindig."

But the executive director of the foundation that puts on the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering says that the controversy over government spending on the event is mostly all hat and no cattle.

Charlie Seemann, the executive director of the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nev., says that federal funding only made up about 7 percent of the funding for last year's event, which drew about 8000 attendees and involved thousands of local school children in 2010.

"We could certainly continue if we lose that funding, but we do see it as very valuable," to the survival of a community event that injects over $7 million into the state's economy over the course of one week, he said.

Seemann says that about 43 percent of last year's gathering was funded by ticket sales (a four day "Deluxe" pass is $60), with an additional 23 percent coming from business sponsors. Private foundations covered about 16 percent of the festival's operating costs, and state and local government accounted for about 9 percent.

The annual week-long "celebration of life in the rural West, which features "the contemporary and traditional arts of western ranching culture" was honored by the United States Senate in 2000.

Reid is correct, Seemann says, that the program would not have existed were it not for some seed grants early in its history. (It was founded in 1985.) But now, Seemann notes, the money coming from federal coffers has dwindled, even as the event has grown.

Although the press hasn't all been kind, the folksy Folklife Center boss doesn't mind being corralled into the national debate over federal spending.

"Everybody thinks this is a great opportunity for us to get some free publicity," he said. "Everyone's had a good sense of humor about it."