It turns out that the men and women who graze cattle on America’s public lands are largely a level-headed bunch. No one paying attention during the 41-day standoff at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon could have missed the deafening silence from about 22,000 public-lands ranchers when Bundy and Co. urged all of them to tear up their federal grazing permits and start demanding the “return” of public lands to “the people.”
Absent any substantive evidence that ranchers are radicalized, opponents of public-land grazing are reprising the argument that ranchers are subsidized. This is a lesser evil, to be sure, but still a serious charge. Does the American taxpayer dole out dollars so ranchers can graze public lands on the cheap?
It is a fact that ranchers pay less for grass on public land. Currently, they pay $2.11 per AUM, compared to about $18.40 per AUM for private leases, where one “animal unit month” equals the forage necessary to graze a cow and calf or five sheep for one month. Yet the complaint that public-lands ranchers get a sweetheart deal ignores the hidden costs of grazing on public lands. Economic studies concur that when other expenses are factored in — maintaining fencing, water development and invasive weed treatment, for example — the cost of grazing on public land is the same or possibly greater than grazing on private land.
Though federal grass itself may be cheaper, the expenses of running cattle on public lands make it anything but a bargain.
Yet the federal grazing program in 2014 operated at a $125 million shortfall. If taxpayers are annually sinking that kind of cash into it, what are they getting for their dollars?
The answer is far more than they realize. Consider, for example, that ranchers provide invaluable services like volunteer firefighting on public lands. Fire is the single most destructive force on America’s public rangelands: In 2015, range fires ravaged over 700,000 acres in the West and cost the Bureau of Land Management $131 million for fire suppression and land restoration.
The total price tag for Idaho’s 280,000 acre Soda Fire alone will top $73.5 million over five years. Yet few people are aware that across the Great Basin, rancher-run Rangeland Fire Protection Associations mobilize as first responders to range fires, often extinguishing blazes hours before federal fire crews can arrive on site. In Idaho alone, 146 rangeland protection firefighters fought 56 fires last year. Just by preventing one major fire, these ranchers provide taxpayers untold savings. Beyond that, you can’t put a price on the value of the watersheds, wildlife, and vital habitat for sage grouse and other sensitive species that ranchers protect from wildfire.
And for those of us who would rather see ranches instead of condo developments that swallow up open spaces, a recent study (“The Disappearing West”) funded by the left-leaning Washington, D.C., nonprofit Center for American Progress, found that between 2001 and 2011, a staggering 4,300 square miles of natural areas in the West were lost to development. The study found that “development on private lands accounted for nearly three-fourths of all natural areas in the West that disappeared.” If the study has a moral, it’s this: To preserve the natural splendors of the West, we must find ways to keep undeveloped private land from residential, commercial and industrial development.
How? One way is to support public-lands ranching. The 250 million acres of federal grazing lands are integrally tied to the economic livelihood of individual ranches, which apart from their federal grazing allotments comprise 100 million acres of mostly natural, undeveloped private lands. If these ranches are able to stay in business, that’s 100 million acres of open space, habitat and ecosystems spared from the developer’s bulldozers. Put a price tag on that, if you can.
Today, many environmental groups understand the critical role that ranchers play in the conservation of the West. The World Wildlife Fund’s Sustainable Ranching Initiative, Audubon’s Working Lands effort and The Nature Conservancy’s numerous partnerships with ranchers all show that the custodianship of ranchers is highly valued. Teamwork and collaboration have come to define 21st century conservation on Western rangelands.
Grazing systems can and should be fine-tuned. But land, once developed, is lost forever. If American taxpayers value landscapes unbroken and unburned, they should tip their hats to the ranchers. These hard-working men and women aren’t on “welfare.” They are fundamental to the welfare of America’s wide-open West.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.