« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Saving ranchlands doesn’t mean saving the rancher

  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.

In 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 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 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.

Over 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 challenged tradition.

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 West.

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 since 1994.

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.

All of 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?"

Paul Larmer is the executive director of High Country News (hcn.org), based in Paonia, Colorado, and a contributor to its columns service, Writers on the Range. He can be contacted at plarmer@hcn.org.