Gaze or Graze

Graze or Gaze?

The Economist: In 1997, the fledgling science of environmental economics reached a new turning point: land could be more valuable in its natural state than when used for extraction purposes like farming, mining, or logging. In that year, The Economist reports, the city government of New York realized that changing agricultural practices meant it would need to act to preserve the quality of the city’s drinking water. One option would be to install new water-filtration plants, but that would have cost $4 billion-$6 billion up front, together with annual operating costs of $250 million. Instead, the government paid to preserve the rural nature of the Catskill Mountains from which New York gets most of its water. The city is spending $250 million to buy land to prevent development, and paying farmers $100 million a year to minimize water pollution. The upstream health of the environment was worth billions of dollars to the people of New York City. Today environmental economics has gone mainstream. In fact, a specialist in environmental and resource economics, Lawrence Goulder, chairs the top ranked economics department at Stanford University.

This change in perspective is slow to come to the Colorado Plateau, however. It remains the law of the land that public lands be grazed; to stop grazing permitted land is illegal. It’s the same for water. Public land management economics are strangely out of line with our country’s usually liberal, free market policies. Wading into who stands where on the economic policies can be a little bit of a trip into wonderland. If a rancher wants to sell his permits to a conservation agency to retire the grazing rights, he can’t. That particular freedom is denied him. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a special interest lobbying group, opposes that right of individual choice. Yet, in its website, the association claims to be rather libertarian in its thinking, stating they were founded to:

  • Minimize direct federal involvement in agriculture
  • Preserve the right of individual choice in the management of land, water, and other resources
  • Provide for an opportunity to compete in foreign markets, and
  • [Promote] free enterprise and competitive market systems.

However, the country’s chief libertarian think tank, The Cato Institute, calls the result of our public lands grazing a “testimony to the failure of land-use socialism.” Cato points out that while taxpayers have paid for the federally supervised and subsidized grazing, the practice has resulted in environmental degradation of public rangelands and that ranchers, “the intended beneficiaries, have gained little except debt, insecurity, and mountains of regulations.”

“Socialism.” Not a libertarian word of praise.

Our current grazing and water laws were written for the West of over a century ago. The debate on how to update them ranges from impractical extremes of privatizing the public lands by selling it to the ranchers to more regulations and simply prohibiting grazing altogether. It seems to me moving up to the high middle ground is simple. The arid public lands of the West are hammered. The hay towns on the Colorado Plateau are extremely poor and getting worse. They are in urgent need of a capital infusion. Most ranching operations are money losers. All we need for a big, win-win improvement is simply to grant ranchers the freedom to choose if they want to accept a buyout from conservation agencies that are standing by, ready to pay, money in hand.

Yet, this summer, in the U.S Senate Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, that very proposition was voted down 13 to 1. How can this be? It is strange. The Cato Institute understands why the non-ranching public feels that public land grazing is inequitable. Cato describes the practice today as a government-mandated land-use monopoly that relies on taxpayer dollars for its existence and is sustained irrespective of economic payoff, ecological effects, and public demand–demand that increasingly favors land and wildlife health and the resulting recreation possibilities over grazing. They argue that the public is shut out from the everyday decision-making that controls the management and use of federal lands. As a result, a small number of ranchers– about 1/100th of 1 percent of the U.S. population and 2 percent of the nation’s cattle producers–enjoy special privileges on 264 million acres of federal land. Grazing is a political mandate rather than a natural outcome.

That this inequity carries on speaks once again to the power of special interest groups and to how few people know about this disproportionate use of public lands. Ranchers individually would like the freedom to choose. In 2001, the Grand Canyon Trust purchased permits from willing local ranchers– including a county commissioner–on the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, ,and asked the BLM to amend the pertinent land use plan to retire the land from grazing. It was not long, however, before a strong lobbying campaign against retirement was mounted by that strangely powerful special interest group, the Cattlemen’s Association. Every single commissioner in the two counties involved – including the rancher-commissioner who had sold permits to the Trust – signed a letter opposing the request, and the ranchers were denied the chance to sell. It all seems a bit perverse. The fact that conservation agencies are ready to buy grazing rights at a price ranchers are willing to accept is more evidence that the land is often worth more now in its natural state than it is grazed. Let the markets help the ranchers – and the land. Torrey House Press hopes to do its part to encourage more rationality by publishing literary fiction and creative nonfiction that spreads a little appreciation and understanding of the public interest over that of a tiny special interest. ~Mark

“The West was settled without logic. People settled where they wanted to settle, with no regard whatever to the ecological consequences or the ability of the land to support them.” T. H. Watkins

The Ecologist: Well, Mark, the public’s interest in the West is not what it used to be! In the nineteenth century, Americans moved west for a variety of reasons. Some came because they had hit hard times east of the Mississippi, others had been bamboozled by the land scams of the mid-nineteenth century, some followed charismatic leaders, but all had at least a glimmer of hope that things would be better. Once settled, the new westerners began to increase herds of cattle and sheep which they grazed at will year-round on western lands. At first, because there were probably great stands of grasses and forbs, these sites could bear, to some extent, the severe grazing. But like all things, including human health and economies, it is the cumulative effect that finally tips the scale. Because none of the grasses on the forest and shrub-steppe sites evolved under heavy grazing pressure, they decreased in population over time. I would like to think that before grazing, most grasslands were thick with plants and rich in diversity. Now the best sites, even protected areas like the sites I like to find and wallow in, have declining plant vigor and density.

Even though I come from a family of western ranchers, and at least for a while we grazed public lands, I have come to believe that public land grazing is one of the many factors that contribute to negative cumulative effects. I have urged Senators, when I worked for them, to amend or do away with the Taylor Grazing Act. In 1934, Edward T. Taylor, from my home state of Colorado, introduced legislation that attempted to protect the overgrazed and severely degraded western grazing lands by creating grazing districts and limiting livestock numbers in the districts. Nevertheless, unmitigated grazing continued because many of the grazing district managers were livestock men. In 1946, The Grazing Service, which managed the Taylor Grazing Act, and the General Land Office—set up by President Thomas Jefferson to survey and then dispose of public lands—were merged into what is now the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). In 1976, Congress passed the Federal Land Management and Policy Act (FLPMA) which modified and actually eliminated over three hundred different ways to homestead lands, and it did direct, for the first time, that the BLM inventory its resources. But FLPMA didn’t repeal the Taylor Grazing Act and did little to change grazing practices.

Almost all floras in the Colorado Plateau and the West decrease in vigor and density under livestock grazing pressure: there were never large herds of ungulates grazing on the Plateau or the West like those that roamed the east side of the Continental Divide or on the Serengeti and Kalahari regions in Africa. Western plants evolved without the heavy ungulate grazing pressures of bison on the short-grass and tall grass prairie systems so they’re not genetically programmed to maintain themselves under the demands of even moderate grazing. But the regulations and laws promulgated to reduce impacts to public lands have been muted and gutted by politics. Grazing impacts and other mismanaged uses contribute to rapidly accelerating declining environmental health that has opened niches for invasive plants and niches for pathogens like West Nile Virus, Ungulate Mass Wasting Disease, and Whirling Disease.

But there is hope. In Utah, the Watershed Restoration Initiative, a diverse group of people, agencies, and organizations, has been working for six years to “jump-start” ecologic processes. What will the end result be? Even though we can model projected outcomes, most landscapes have been seriously degraded and it will take time to see progress. But the no-action alternative—let nature take its course—is the most expensive both ecologically and economically in the long-term. Because of factors like invasive species which can dominate fragile systems, the landscape will certainly not be what it was like when pioneers moved into the Colorado Plateau and the West. But I don’t think our grandchildren will think well of us if we just stand by, and I don’t think future economies can support the no-action alternative.~A.J.

About Torrey House Press

Torrey House Press is an independent nonprofit publisher promoting environmental conservation through literature.   We believe that culture is changed through conversation and that lively contemporary literature is the cutting edge of social change. By building and engaging community in the conversation of conservation, we make our contribution to, as Wallace Stegner hoped for, a “society to match the scenery." THP books are distributed by Consortium Books Sales and Distribution, a subsidiary of Ingram Content Group.
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