Forest Magazine Article: Review of Ranching West of the 100th Meridian
Ranching West of the 100th Meridian: Culture, Ecology, and Economics is both a celebration of and a eulogy for the western rancher. Celebration because clearly the authors love the cowboy culture. They are not, however, unbiased observers. Many of the writersincluding Linda Hasselstrom, Bob Budd, Drummond Hadley, and Richard Knightare ranchers. Others, wife and husband academics Lynn Huntsinger, a range professor, and Paul Starrs, a geographer who worked on ranches during his college years, for example, also have strong attachments to the cowboy culture. Yet others, like Allan Savory, conduct seminars for western ranchers and livestock supporters.
You need to keep these economic conflicts and emotional affinities in mind when reading the book. As active supporters and participants in the livestock industry, most of the authors cannot provide an honest critique of the livestock industrys failingson cultural, economic or ecological levels. When biologist Richard Knight writes, Grazing when appropriately done, contributes to the disturbance that rangelands require, you have to ask yourself if he could continue to ranch if he believed otherwise.
Im not suggesting that the authors seek to purposely distort informationI believe they have the most honorable and best intentions. But because they have strong links to the livestock industry, few contributors are able to take a critical look at the livestock industrys ecological and social costs.
While praising the benefits of the cowboy culture and lifestyle, the book eulogizes the cowboy. Most of the statistics they cite about the future of the western livestock industry indicate a swift decline. And the authors foresee that if ranchers go the way of the southern plantation owners, fur trappers and whalers of the nineteenth century, not only will the West suffer a cultural loss and a central part of its regional identity, preservation of biodiversity will suffer as well.
Because they venerate the ranching way of life, they fail to recognize that livestock production is more a deathstyle than a lifestyle. Like most livestock advocates throughout the West, the authors minimize or ignore the ecological impacts associated with livestock production by narrowly defining the field of discussion. Advocates focus on close-cropped plants as the only consequence of raising slow-moving, water-loving animals in the arid West. But livestock production requires far more than grazing of grasses. And the authors simply ignore most of the real ecological impacts associated with livestock production as opposed to merely simple effects associated with grazing of plants.
The book offers no significant discussion of the effects of livestock irrigation and water use on western aquatic ecosystems. Yet livestock production accounts for the bulk of water use in the West. Even in California, the state with the greatest domestic water use in the West, livestock forage production accounts for the lions share of water consumed and wetlands drained. More acres of the states farmlands are devoted to irrigated livestock forage production than to any other cropand with serious ecological implications for salmon, trout, waterfowl and many other species.
In other western states, hay, alfalfa and other crops are the major consumers of water, dwarfing all other uses, including urban, industry and rural domestic uses.
Irrigation for livestock forage production negatively impacts nearly all aquatic ecosystems by fragmenting water bodies with dams constructed to store irrigation water, as well as through dewatering. These uses change the rate of flow, temperature and input of pollution. Livestock-associated impacts on aquatic ecosystems are not on the radar screen of the books authors.
Nor is there is any discussion of the ecological costs of water developments such as creating stock tanks or piping spring water from seeps to reduce livestock impacts on fragile riparian zones. Yet such development has huge ecological effects on mollusks, frogs and aquatic insects dependent on springs and seeps for their existence. Mollusks, frogs and aquatic insects are part of the collateral damage associated with the livestock industry that is just accepted or ignored.
Many other ecological impacts of livestock production, including the transfer of disease to wildlife, predator control, forage competition between native species and livestock, trampling of soil crusts and many other negative effects, are either totally ignored or blithely glossed over.
The western livestock industry is ubiquitous. Its geographical footprint is so big that it is likely that no other human activity affects more of the West in more ways than livestock production.
I am convinced that for many of the authors, these costs, even if articulated, would be acceptable because they believe that ranching serves a higher purpose. They believe that there is a far greater threat and enemy than cows. Nearly all of the authors see sprawl and urbanization as the greatest threat to western landscapes and culture. Regarding the condos versus cows debate, the books authors are convinced that without ranching, the West would quickly become one big city. And even if cows are a problem, hey, condos are worse.
This threat resonates with most westerners because the West is one of the fastest growing parts of the country. And if you live in the West, you probably live in a city and you see growth paving over forest and fields every day. Never mind that if you go more than a short distance outside of Albuquerque, Billings, Salt Lake City, Boise, Las Vegas, Phoenix or Tucson, you swiftly enter open space on the scale of hundreds of millions of acres. The gut feeling that most people have is that development is ruining the West they love.
Those gut feelings, though accurate to a point, do not provide a landscape-scale perspective. For instance, even California, with a population double that of the other ten western states combined, is primarily impacted by livestock production not urbanization. According to land use surveys, 3.5 to 4.5 percent of the state is considered developed, but livestock production occurs on roughly 65 to 70 percent of the land base.
In less populated states like Montana, the disparity between developed land and open space is even greater. According to the latest federal statistics, only 0.17 percent of Montana is developed, but livestock production affects about 80 to 85 percent of the state. In spite of tens of millions of acres of open space and undeveloped landscapes, dozens of species are in steep decline, not as a result of growing cities and condos, but as a consequence of livestock production. The species affected include blackfooted ferret, Columbia sharptail grouse, sage grouse, Yellowstone cutthroat trout, Montana grayling, wolf, grizzly bear and others. Livestock production isnt the only culprit behind the decline of these species, but in most instances, if there were no cattle in the West, these species would not be declining as rapidly.
Despite our perception of advancing sprawlreal as it is in some locationsthe West is dominated not by cities, malls and highways but by open, undeveloped landscapes. However, these are not unmodified acres, nearly all are impacted in one way or another by livestock production. And given that, I believe there is ample evidence to suggest that livestock production is anything but benign. Its difficult to accept the premise that condos are a greater threat to the Wests ecosystems than livestock production.
Even if the books authors were to agree with my interpretation of land use and its impactssomething I suspect they will notI believe that for many of the authors, the threat of condos is a convenient club they wield to batter critics of the ranching industry. Although not explicitly stated, saving the cowboy culture appears to be more important to many of these authors than addressing the question of whether ranching has real value for land preservation.
I dont wish to portray the authors as uncaring about development. Like most livestock critics, these livestock advocates are concerned that far too much of the Wests open spaces are being converted to Anyplace, USA. However, even if sprawl and development were not an issue, most of the books authors would be staunch advocates of sustaining the ranching lifestyle.
The dominant take-home message of the book is that ranching can save the Wests open spaces. There is neither evidence presented that this assertion is accurate nor is there a real comparison of the advantages and disadvantages of maintaining ranching.
The book offers no advocacy for or even much discussion of proven and proactive land use strategiesincluding land-use planning, fee acquisition or use of conservation easementsthat guide or control sprawl. These proactive mechanisms for containing development are more reliable than dependence on passive coincidental conservation, which relies entirely on landowners goodwill and ability to forgo personal economic enrichment. Not to mention there is little evidence that such passive approaches have worked anywhere to preserve open space in the face of rising land valueswhether its orange growers in Florida or dairy farmers in Vermont. The declining economic viability of the ranching industry does not bode well for the livestock industrys effectiveness as a mechanism to preserve open space in areas in high demand.
To my mind, promoting ranching and its associated ecological and economic costs in hopes of stemming development is analogous to promoting alcoholism as an alternative to heroin use. Neither is good for society, though one may on the surface appear to be more socially acceptable.
What we need to confront in the West, and something that the authors do not address, is the need to simultaneously reduce and eliminate both sprawl and cattle over most of the West. And Im afraid the authors desire to see the livestock culture survive saps public support for proven alternatives. They propose passively waiting for ranchers to adopt more benign techniques or hoping they will stay in the business despite rising economic uncertainty.
The central principle ignored by most authors of the book is the fact that rising land values contribute to land conversion, not to the availability of land for sale. When land prices rise, as they have in many urban areas in the West or in rural resort-dominated areas, ranchlands tend to be divided into more affordable parcels. And this demand is driven by amenities, whether recreation or employment or cultural diversions like good restaurants, museums and theaters. There are tens of millions of acres of land for sale in North Dakota for ridiculously low prices, but there is no rush by developers to subdivide North Dakota, or even most of Nevada, eastern Oregon, eastern Montana, much of Wyoming, Arizona or New Mexico. No demand. No condos.
Rising land values also mean few people other than wealthy sport rancherslike Anheuser-Busch heir Drum Hadley or Sun Ranch owner Roger Lang, a software millionairecan afford to enter ranching today. I readily acknowledge these men are doing good things by their land compared to previous owners, but I also note that they do not depend on livestock for their economic survival. Such large, wealthy landowners protect open space, but for most of these people, there is no economic need for them to raise cattle. They, like Ted Turner, could just as easily spend their fortunes restoring ecosystems and endangered species.
The western livestock industry has succeeded in competing against livestock producers from better-watered regions by transferring many of the costs of livestock production on to the land or to the taxpayerby ignoring the ecological effects on native species or through numerous subsidies from drought relief funds to low land taxes. The other key factor is access to large parcels of relatively unproductive land. With rising land prices, one of the major mechanisms for competingaccess to lots of inexpensive land and forageis negated. And greater public accountability for the ecological effects of the livestock industry on native species is driving up the costs of production beyond what the marginal lands of the West can economically sustain.
Ranching West of the 100th Meridian is terminally ill if not yet dead. The authors desperately want society to continue life support for this industry. The authors of this book love the cowboy and ranching culture. For them, pulling the plug on a loved one is impossible, even if its well past time to move on and let death put an end to the suffering.
What we need for the West is a fresh vision for our culture and economy that is not based on domination of the land, animals and people and destruction of our natural capital. Whether such a goal for the West is achievable, I wont attempt to debate, but those searching for a new vision for the West wont find it among these pages. FM