Forest Magazine Article: A Rancher's Decision
Start talking grazing with Andy Kerr and hell methodically build a gloomy framework of statistics and demographics.
Hell say that public land grazing is the most pervasive use, and abuse, of federal lands in the West. About 26,000 ranchers graze more than 3 million cattle on 254 million acres of U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands. The public range in the seventeen western states is an area the size of California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho put together. Theres almost no land in the western United States that hasnt been grazed by cattle or sheep in the last 150 years. Grazing is so pervasive, few people can even imagine what ungrazed land looks like (see It Aint a Pretty Picture). Its rare to see a natural rangeland, so people dont have a reference point, Kerr says.
Consider that all those public land ranchers pay a small fraction of what a private landowner would charge for grazing rights, a subsidy that, according to several recent studies, may amount to $100 million to $500 million annually. Consider, too, that all that livestock is unadapted to the subsistence of the western range. Cows and sheep need more water and more forage than any native species they replaced and across the seventeen western states are consistently pushing out the natives. In Arizona, grazing is the number one reason plants and animals are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
As Kerr tells it, the picture is bleak. His talk is infused with words like cow bombed. But Kerr, the stocky, bearded veteran of the Northwest timber wars, has been delivering grim punch lines for the environmental movement for more than a quarter of a century. What hes planning may set up his best one.
Kerr has assembled a coalition of environmental groups into the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign. At an October conference in Boise, Idaho, they fill an upstairs room at the Boise State University student union to hear Kerr and others recount the litany. George Wuerthner has a slide show that culls many images from Welfare Ranching, the book he edited with Mollie Matteson that illustrates what cow bombed really means. A converted rancher offers a testimonial. Jon Marvel, the executive director of Western Watersheds Project, debates Ed Marston, the former publisher of High Country News, and they lay bare a philosophical split among environmentalists about the vision for what the West should and will become. Thomas Michael Power, coauthor of Post-Cowboy Economics, speaks that evening about his research into economic trends in the New West and where people are really working in the western economy.
The upshot is that public land ranching is dying. The West may be the spiritual home of the Marlboro Man, but the capital of cow country is somewhere back East. How people in the West come to grips with that reality and how the environmental movement can make the transition work best for the environment is the focus of conferences such as this one.
Kerr has the solution, a big-tent approach, built on that framework of gloomy statistics. Get the ranchers to agree to a buyout of federal grazing permits and the problems will be solved. The ranchers can pay off their bank loans, taxpayers save by eliminating a subsidy, and nature heals itself. Win-win-win.
Despite all that environmental damage caused by livestock, cattle grazed on public land represent less than 3 percent of the national beef supply. Even in the West, where public land ranching would seem to dominate, only about 22 percent of western ranchers have public land permits. Its just not a big enough part of the industry to justify subsidizing it especially when it does so much harm, Kerr says. Many public land ranchers nowadays have two jobsand the one off the ranch, in town, supports the family. Cheap grazing allotments, Kerr says, support the ranching lifestyle, and taxpayers shouldnt be asked to support someone elses lifestyle decision.
In addition, public land ranchers are getting older and demographic changes show that its unlikely their children and grandchildren will take up on the land where they left off. With retirement comes a dilemma: ranchers are land rich in a poor economy. Because most public land ranchers have a private base ranch, when they decide to give up the business its not as simple as giving the ranch to the kids, especially when the place and equipment may be worth a million or more dollars. Buying out a parent or siblings with bank loans becomes increasingly difficult as already thin profit margins get thinner.
The lone, struggling, aging rancher may offer the more heart-rending story, but public land ranching is more complex, with more than a few less-than-sympathetic protagonists. Behind the image of stalwart family ranchers, the largest public land ranchers are corporations such as Anheuser-Busch or megarich entrepreneurs like Idahos potato king, J. R. Simplot. According to Cash Cows, a special report published by the San Jose Mercury News in 1999, the top 10 percent of grazing permit holders on BLM land control 65 percent of the livestock. But according to the Mercury News report, the BLM classifies nearly half of the lands used by the twenty largest permit holders as unsatisfactory. Across the BLMs public land grazing program, 27 percent of the land is rated as unsatisfactory.
The grazing permit buyout is the carrot that Kerr hopes will lure ranchers off public landsfamily farmers and corporate giants alike. In 2002, the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign mailed a letter to the 26,000 or so federal grazing permit holders, telling them about the program and asking for their support. Reactions to the buyout plan, which offers $175 for each month that a cow and calf pair can be grazed on public lands (an animal unit month or AUM), have been mixed: outrage, support, desperation. Kerr says that a few people have called to ask when they can get their payments, not realizing that the plan is just in the talking stage. A permanent buyout of federal grazing permits would require an act, and an appropriation, from Congress. Buyouts use the market to extinguish the market, Kerr says. The last time I checked, money still talks.
"Washington, D.C., is not a good place to decide what to do with western public lands, says William Myers, the Department of the Interior solicitor. Myers answers directly to Interior Secretary Gale Norton. A former lobbyist and lawyer for the ranching industry, Myers has made a career fighting for ranchers. He wears small wire glasses and a neat suit to speak to the comfortable-clothes crowd of environmentalists. He is plain spoken, well versed, more Beltway than big belt buckle.
The Homestead Act granted settlers 160 acresa figure arrived at by eastern congressmen in the middle of the 1800s. In most of the West, settlers found that they would starve if they tried to raise crops, and they would starve if they tried ranching on 160 acres, Myers says. They settled on the best land, the river bottoms, and used the unclaimed uplands to graze. Eliminating a traditional use on federal land would put private landowners in jeopardy, Myers says.
The choice is clear for Myers: public land ranching has strong legal roots in the West and its good for the economy and the environment. A buyout wouldnt offer a rosy, return-the-land-to-nature consequence, he says.
When ranching goes away, subdivision and development follows, Myers says. By cutting ranchers off from public lands, they will be forced to sell their base properties, opening the door for sprawl. Its telling to know that Las Vegas means ëthe meadows, Myers says.
Marston takes a different tack when he talks about ranchers leaving the land (see Welfare Ranching). In Marstons view, the open spaces of the West need a local constituency, whatever their politics. If its not sprawl filling the vacuum of the departed ranchers, it may be the extraction industries, particularly coal bed methane, that come in their place, politically unopposed.
The West is a big place, Wuerthner counters (see Ranching West of the 100th Meridian), and ranching wont stop sprawl. Sprawl is a problem near cities and towns, but the vast majority of the West is sparsely populated and off the radar screen of developers. If development nearby drives up the price of ranchland, inevitably, rancher or no, it becomes a commodity, and development will always outpay agriculture. If the Willamette Valley in Oregon and the Imperial Valley in California, some of the most valuable farmland in the world, cant hold off sprawl, what chance does the marginal ranchland of the West have, Wuerthner asks.
Reform of public land ranching has taken many forms in the past century. The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 sought to reverse much of the damage caused by unrestrained grazing during early western settlement by establishing the grazing permit system (see Free Land). Conditions on public land improved as a result.
The public range, however, remains degraded on many millions of acres in the West, according to BLM and Forest Service statistics. Add to that current conditions, such as the drought in the Southwest (see Drier & Drier), intensify the problem, and mandatory herd reductions push public land ranchers further into the margins. Reduce a herd by 10 percent, Kerr says, and itll put many out of business. Permits will remain in effect, and ranchers face a use-it-or-lose-it decision. With pressure on many ranchers from Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act lawsuits, a buyout makes sense for some.
Id like to see whatevers best for the land, says John Whitney IV, a ranching advocate whose father is one of the biggest permit holders in Arizona (see A Rancher's Decision). And Id like to see ranchers and environmentalists working together to make things successful. Whitney doesnt want to leave ranching in his familys past, but he sees that public land ranching will have to change in the new western economy. He is an advocate for the buyout and has become a spokesperson for a buyout campaign in Arizona.
On one thing Kerr and Myers may agree. Ranchers are pragmaticeven if it is hard for some to get around who the messengers are.
They will pay attention if its a good idea, Myers says. Theyre businessmen. FM