There’s no time like the present to reform public land livestock grazing. By any measure—ecological or economic—grazing livestock on our National Forests costs more than it returns.
The ecological harm is stark and affects 70 percent of our public land in the western United States. Some of the damage is obvious to the naked eye: Denuded and trampled stream banks; barren hillsides cropped dry of all grass; and water despoiled by livestock waste.
Other ecological costs are more subtle: Wildlife habitat so degraded that species like the sage grouse face extinction; loss of natural, restorative fire because grasslands no longer have enough grass to fuel low-level flame; and stream temperature warming from loss of riparian shade.
Like most other public land exploitation, livestock grazing rips off taxpayers, too. The Forest Service spends $50 million tax dollars on livestock management each year. In return, ranchers pay $5 million for the privilege of grazing their cattle and sheep on our National Forests. Yes, this tax subsidy doesn’t begin to rival what our government has paid to bail-out Wall Street and auto companies, but it is irksome that we are spending tax money to degrade the environment.
There’s no question we need to cut back on public land livestock grazing, which contributes only 3 percent of our nation’s beef supply (we could all probably benefit from consuming at least 3 percent less red meat). The place to start is in America’s wilderness areas.
Yes, that’s right, our most pristine and wild lands are also grazed by livestock. In fact, virtually every wilderness area in the West is grazed by cattle.
We don’t allow roads, all-terrain vehicles or mountain bikes in wilderness. But commercial livestock have free run of the wilderness range. Contrary to mythology advanced by the livestock lobby, which claims the Wilderness Act gives carte blanche to ranchers to continue grazing their cattle, that’s not what the law actually says.
When Congress adopted the 1964 Wilderness Act, the ranching lobby was indeed powerful, but not omnipotent. In a compromise, Congress said that livestock grazing “shall be permitted to continue” in wilderness areas, but (and this is the key) the grazing would be “subject to such reasonable regulations as are deemed necessary by the Secretary of Agriculture.”
In the years immediately following the law’s adoption, the Forest Service understood that this provision required it to regulate grazing to protect each wilderness area’s primitive, undisturbed landscape. As a result, livestock in wilderness areas began to decline as Forest Service managers sought to rein in out-of-control ranching.
The industry fought back and implored Congress to amend the Wilderness Act so that grazing could be unfettered by any regulation to protect wilderness values. Congress refused to do so. The best the ranchers could get was a late 1970s House committee report that does not have the force of law behind it. That report, which has acquired almost mythic status within the federal government, has been used by ranchers to fight off any meaningful livestock regulation to protect wilderness during the last 20-plus years—directly contrary to the plain language of the Wilderness Act itself.
Now FSEEE has launched a campaign to get cattle that damage fundamental wilderness values off of our wilderness lands. I am writing to enlist your support in this important and difficult effort.
FSEEE is surveying our nation’s wilderness areas to determine which are most severely damaged by livestock grazing. We are reviewing Forest Service “allotment management plans,” which the Forest Service writes to authorize livestock grazing, and insisting that the Forest Service disclose the impacts of livestock grazing on wilderness.
Where the government either refuses to disclose the impacts (as required by the National Environmental Policy Act) or fails to regulate livestock so that the wilderness remains untrammeled (as required by the Wilderness Act), FSEEE will appeal and, if need be, bring suit.
I’ll be candid. Most other environmental groups are too afraid of the livestock lobby to take on this issue. Some groups even support livestock grazing in wilderness areas to encourage ranchers to support more wilderness designation! Not FSEEE.
If we can’t protect our most pristine lands in wilderness areas from damaging livestock grazing, what hope do we have to rein in ranchers on the rest of our public estate?
I hope that you’ll help us get the cows out of wilderness. It’s high time we realized the promise of the Wilderness Act and adopt the regulations necessary to truly preserve these precious public lands.