Few environmental issues have stirred up as much dust in the West as the debate over livestock grazing. "Cattle ruin the land," shouts one side. "Environmentalists commit cultural genocide against ranchers," shouts the other.
the early 1990s, a small group of conservationists looked beyond
the hyperbole and found a third approach: supporting ranchers who
wanted to raise healthy livestock while also improving the health
of the land. "Keep good ranchers on the land" became their mantra.
It’s a nice sentiment, but the fact is that
ranching is dying in the West and has been for some time. 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 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
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 people with checkbooks come knocking.
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. And the pace is quickening.
the next decade, more than half the ranches in the region will
change hands, as an aging population of ranchers sells to newcomers
or passes their lands on to heirs who are more interested in the
land’s monetary value than in continuing an economically
All of this spells huge trouble for
the West, because these lands are some of the most beautiful and
biologically rich. They are also next to our public lands, where
ranchers graze their herds during the summer months. If current
population and land-use trends hold, cattle may disappear from the
public domain, greatly pleasing some environmentalists, but the
Western landscape will diminish to a patchwork of over-used 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, 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, according to a new study published in the
February issue of Conservation Biology, and they
have already protected more than 2.5 million acres through
conservation easements and outright purchase of lands.
Still, it’s a drop in the bucket when you consider that 100
million acres of private ranch land is up for grabs throughout the
If the West of tomorrow is going to retain a
significant chunk of open spaces, the public is going to have to
pony up tens of billions of dollars in the coming decade.
That’s not an impossible goal. The federal government has the
ability — though not now the will — to throw in large
amounts of cash through the Land and Water Conservation Fund and
the National Grasslands Reserve Program. So do states. In Colorado,
for example, more than $150 million generated by the state lottery
have gone to the protection of some 358,000 acres of open space
Citizens are also increasingly willing to tax
themselves to protect private lands. Even in the off-election year
of 2003, voters in Western communities approved 13 ballot measures
that will result in more than $300 million for open spaces and
parks, according to the Trust for Public Lands.
this bodes well for a last stand against the growth machine. But
will it save the ranchers? The cash and tax relief derived from
conservation easements will allow some ranchers to stay on the land
for at least another generation. But raising livestock will
continue to be a marginal economic activity for all but the most
innovative, stubborn and the most wealthy. Non-ranchers will most
likely end up with most of the private land on offer.
That’s a hard pill to swallow, but it doesn’t
necessarily mean the end of the West’s rural landscape. For
the paramount question we must address today is not, "How do we
save ranching?" but, "How do we save the land?"