Condos or cows? Neither!

  Dear HCN,
Ranching advocates like Ed Marston and Rick Knight present a faulty argument when they assert that ranching can prevent sprawl (HCN, 1/20/03: THE GREAT RANCHING DEBATE). If we wish to prevent sprawl and its effects — a worthy goal — we need to implement effective land-conservation strategies. Ranching as a land-preservation strategy is flawed for three major reasons.

First, livestock proponents vastly underestimate the ecological costs of livestock production. Livestock production involves crop production, water diversions, predator control, fences and many other activities that carry tremendous ecological costs. Livestock spread weeds, fragment wildlife habitat (particularly aquatic ecosystems, because of water diversions for irrigation), transmit diseases to native wildlife, consume forage that would otherwise support native herbivores, trample soils, pollute water sources, degrade riparian areas, truncate nutrient flows and short-circuit ecological processes.

  Second, livestock proponents ignore the vast geographical differences between development and livestock production in their respective physical footprint on the land. Animal agriculture affects 70 percent to 75 percent of the U.S. land area — development affects less than 3.5 percent. In the West, it is even more skewed. For instance, a GAP analysis conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey shows that only 530,000 of Colorado’s 66 million acres are affected by development, whereas 33 million acres are grazed by livestock. Worse yet, more than 15,722,500 acres of Colorado’s farmland are devoted to livestock forage crops such as feeder corn, hay and alfalfa. These agricultural fields alone are every bit as disastrous as shopping malls for most wildlife. Hay or cornfields typically consist of exotic plants that are removed annually. Many of these crops are irrigated and guzzle precious water. Such fields effectively fragment and degrade more terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems than all urbanization and sprawl combined.

  Third, perhaps the most flawed part of the ranching-as-preservation strategy is that ranching isn’t preventing sprawl now, nor will it in the future. Sprawl is driven by demand. Demand usually leads to rising land prices, which in turn make it impossible to expand ranching operations through new land acquisitions. It also means that anyone not already a millionaire cannot even dream of entering the industry. When the cost of land ownership rises above the price that can be returned on investment raising cows, ranching will gradually be replaced by higher-value land uses — usually development — if demand is present. Fortunately, the greatest demand is concentrated near urban centers and resort communities where jobs, medical facilities, educational opportunities and other amenities are found. People are not flocking to North Dakota despite cheap land. No demand. No sprawl.

  The only effective means of controlling development in the face of rising land values is to use proven, directed conservation mechanisms like zoning, conservation easements and outright fee purchase to protect landscapes.

  The argument that we must choose between condos and cows is a false one. Condos or cows? Neither, is my response!

George Wuerthner
Richmond, VermonRichmond, Vermont

The writer co-edited the book Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West.