The great ranch lands sell-off

  • Paul Larmer

  Few issues over the years have stirred up as much dust in the pages of High Country News as the debate over ranching and livestock grazing. "Cattle ruin the land," shouts one side. "Anti-grazing environmentalists commit cultural genocide against ranchers," shouts the other.

Former HCN publisher Ed Marston decided to look beyond the tiresome hyperbole in the 1990s, and found a third approach: progressive ranchers who were experimenting with ways to ranch that are better for the land. "Keep good ranchers on the land" became Marston’s theme.

It’s a nice sentiment, but the fact is that ranching is dying in the West. While we were debating whether or not cattle could be grazed in an ecologically sound way, the Western landscape we all care so much about was run over by a Mack truck.

The truck, as Jon Christensen points out in this issue’s feature article, is driven by the good old American marketplace. Foreign livestock producers and a monopolistic meatpacking industry have made it almost impossible for ranchers to make a living. Then there is that alluring temptress we all face in America: the rising real estate market.

Though ranchers often have ties to the land that go several generations deep, they find it as hard as the next person not to sell out, when they hold land worth millions and people with checkbooks come knocking on their doors. In the last 30 years, nearly a quarter of the West’s private ranch lands have been converted to other uses, according to the American Farmland Trust.

All of this spells huge trouble for the West, because these lands are some of the most beautiful and biologically rich that we have. If current population and land-use trends hold, the Western landscape of the future will diminish to a patchwork of over-used, highly regulated public lands, surrounded by ever more sprawling suburbs. Wildlife that traditionally came down from the mountains and plateaus to the well-watered rivers will be cut off and confused by the tangled maze of roads, fences, houses and strip malls.

Fortunately, as Christensen notes in this first installment of HCN’s new series on private-lands conservation, plenty of people are resisting this vision. Over the past decade, progressive ranchers, conservationists and a host of local, state and federal entities have quietly built a movement that seeks to save some of this land. Land trusts are sprouting up everywhere in the West, and they have protected more than 2.5 million acres through conservation easements and outright purchase of lands.

The land trust movement is not a panacea for ranchers. Yes, conservation easements are allowing some ranchers to stay on the land for at least another generation. Even with easements in place, however, raising livestock will continue to be a marginal economic activity for all but the most innovative, and the luckiest.

But it’s a hopeful sign for the West’s vanishing rural landscape. For the paramount question we must address today is not, "How do we save ranching?" but, "How do we save the land?"