LAS CRUCES, N.M. - In the wake of a drought that left the Southwestern range parched and degraded, scientists at New Mexico State University are busy: They're figuring out which cattle breeds do the best in the desert. They're mediating disputes between ranchers and Forest Service officials. They're planning to bioengineer a micro-organism that may help cattle safely digest locoweed - a plant that greens up earlier than grasses do, and which is poisonous to cattle.
But in a cluttered
office in the range science department are a couple of boxes of
academic papers that contain a more radical prescription for the
damaged range. Authored by Range Science Professor Jerry Holechek,
the papers contend that ranchers should run a lot fewer cattle than
they do. Government subsidies to ranchers should be abolished. And
if ranchers want to sell their grazing permits to environmental
groups that would phase out the cattle, they should be allowed
Holechek believes that federal lands range
policy needs to be changed at the roots, not around the edges. That
means dismantling what he sees as the twin engines of destruction:
subsidy and overproduction.
"Scarcity is no
longer the real problem in agriculture," he says. "The real problem
now - whether it's beef or wheat or corn - is oversupply."
Holechek's reasoning goes like this: The current
oversupply of beef keeps prices down. Government subsidies, like
drought relief and capital improvement programs, feed that
oversupply by encouraging public-lands ranchers to undertake
expensive construction projects. To pay back the construction debt
they've incurred, ranchers stock their grazing allotments with as
many cattle as possible. This leaves their finances, and the land,
vulnerable to devastating loss when drought hits or beef prices
dive (see "If rain doesn't fall ..." next
Holechek argues that once ranchers lose
subsidies, they lose the incentive to put too many cows on the
land. While subsidized ranchers may clear a larger profit than
their unsubsidized neighbors for a few years, overstocking isn't
profitable in the long run because the range gets degraded and the
cattle become less productive.
Some ranches are
already conservatively stocked, and the size of the cut would vary
from place to place. But West-wide, Holechek says, cattle numbers
could be cut by about one-third. This wouldn't shrink ranchers'
profit margins. They would likely grow because the ranch would have
low overhead costs as well as a healthy range that would sustain
the herd in dry years.
"We need to quit thinking
like a bunch of Neanderthals, promoting the old idea of maximizing
stocking rates and using the high-input approach," he says. "I
often wonder if subconsciously there's a desire to perpetuate
nonsustainable practices because as long as we degrade the system,
the land-grant colleges, the BLM, (and) everybody that services
land degradation prospers ... I think there's a certain
self-interest in never really solving these problems."
Getting in hot
Holechek's ideas have not been met with
universal enthusiasm. Other academics have accused him of
over-reliance on cutting numbers. Last month, after he spoke out
against government feed programs on a national ABC news program, a
member of the New Mexico Farm Bureau fired off an angry letter to
the dean, and another rancher called Holechek to threaten the job
he has had for 16 years.
Holechek, however, is no
stranger to adversity. On campus, his habit of expounding on his
views in The New York Times and The Sacramento Bee as well as the
scholarly Journal of Range Management has sent other faculty
complaining to the dean.
But Holechek doesn't
scare easily. He has the nerves of an outsider - even better, an
outsider with tenure. He applies the same free-market attitude to
the university system as he does to the public range, producing
numerous publications on a bare-bones budget and refusing grant
money for projects he considers irrelevant. He hasn't aligned
himself with ranchers, environmentalists, or any other organized
group. Rather, he remains true to his startlingly strong belief in
the power of the free market to solve economic and environmental
problems, to a nearly visceral distaste for wasting public money,
and to a conviction that the public should know what he's
"In academia, unless you run a real
in-your-face operation, nobody pays any attention," he says. "I'm
paid by the taxpayer. What good am I if I run a clandestine
operation? Who have I served?"
John Owens has no problem with Holecheck's high profile. When he
saw him on ABC News, "I thought, there's Jerry Holechek," he says.
"The essence of Holechek. Pushing the edge of the envelope, doing
what you expect him to do."
Says Holechek, "I
give a lot of credit to the administration that we have protecting
faculty freedom of thought and expression." But he shies away from
discussing the waves he's made in the department, except to say, "I
don't hang around in the coffee room, soliciting peer group
approval." When I leave his office, he closes the door behind me.
A contrast in
Dean Owens says that there is room in the
college for scientists who want to make sweeping changes as well as
those who work within the system. "We should do both!" he says.
"That's what universities are all about."
for example, the university's Range Improvement Task Force.
Commissioned by the state legislature in 1978 to do research and
extension on grazing issues, the task force's approach differs from
Holechek's in both philosophy and style.
task force is called onto the range to help with a grazing dilemma,
"we probably wouldn't go in there with destocking as a first-choice
alternative," says John Fowler, an agricultural economist who has
led the task force for a decade. "We're strong believers in
managerial inputs - reconstruction of the management plan;
sometimes it means long-term capital investment."
And while the task force's work is controversial
- it's particularly criticized by environmentalists - Fowler
strives for a low profile.
"I don't want to make
waves," he says. "My goal is to continue working for the state
long-term. And my goal is the resources. I have to work with the
agencies, the industry, the environmental groups."
In contrast, Holechek and his colleague, writer
and independent range scientist Karl Hess, plow right into the
policy arena. They think that changing the law to allow ranchers to
convert their grazing capacity into recreational or wildlife use
would be a "real low-cost, peaceful way to solve (financial and
environmental) problems." Under this approach, a rancher could sell
his grazing permit to, say, The Nature Conservancy, which could
phase out grazing.
Holechek thinks that
generating broad ideas is right in line with what he should be
doing: "It's my impression that the universities should be a source
of new ideas, rather than just perpetuating the status quo," he
says. "Should we forever use a system that leads to a high amount
of conflict? What's wrong with new ideas that involve passive
approaches to improving the human condition? If we were advocating
the overthrow of the government I think criticism might be in
order, but I don't see our approaches as being draconian or radical
or violent or even unpractical. I don't think I or Karl have ever
advocated anything but a peaceful, passive approach. Look how
inflammatory the present system is!-
a strong ally in Hess, with whom he co-authors newspaper articles
and editorials. He has good relationships with local BLM officials,
ranchers and environmentalists.
"I think Jerry's
an honorable and extremely knowledgeable man," says David Koehler,
who worked for the BLM in New Mexico before moving to Idaho. "I had
an experience 15 years ago with one of his colleagues at a trial in
Santa Fe. I saw this guy get up and prostitute himself and lie-he
said all the erosion (on the contested grazing allotment) was due
to geologic processes (rather than overgrazing). It was a blatant
prostitution. I've seen a lot of guys do that; I'd rather have a
guy like Holechek get out there and tell it like it is."
Koehler, who is now an area manager for BLM in
Idaho, finds a lot of common ground with conservative
"I think (cuts in numbers) would be
appropriate in many locations," he says. "The agencies don't have
the mechanisms to do that when it's required."
Does Holechek believe that if subsidies were
removed, every public lands rancher would develop a burgeoning
"Most of the work I've done
shows that with the removal of subsidies, nonsustainable land use
is financially very unsound," he says. "Most ranchers, I think,
take a long view as well as a short view. They basically, as most
businesses, want to maximize their profits. I'd think as rational
profit maximizers they'd respond to this positively; they'd want to
conservatively stock their lands."
Practicing what he
Although he has had tenure for nine
years, Holechek holds it in disregard: "It's too often used by
people to put themselves out to pasture and not do anything," he
says. "If more people took it to take an unpopular position, I'd
feel differently about it."
His research costs
about $15,000 a year, a fact of which he is proud. "I think I'm the
lowest-cost researcher here," he says. Department Head Bobby Rankin
says that the figure constitutes about the average baseline
government funding in the six-person
"What he's not doing is getting
outside money," says Rankin, adding that grants from government
agencies and private sources range from $2,000 to
Holechek has turned away grant money
from the U.S. Army to research the impacts of tanks on the
vegetation at nearby Fort Bliss.
somebody considers every kind of research necessary," he says. "But
I see the resources as being highly limited, and my time is highly
limited, and if I went off and did that it would mean us keeping
away from other studies. I want to go right for the most important
problem I can do research on, and then I want to get as much
visibility as I can when I do it."