Believe it or not: Ranching has something to teach us


As the 21st century unfolds, it's becoming clear that we need more family farmers and ranchers on the land, not fewer. We need them not only for the food they provide, but also for a lesson in how to live on the land.

It's an ironic turn of events.

For decades, livestock grazing in the arid West was attacked by environmentalists -- vilified as an "irredeemable" activity that had to be ended on public lands, pronto.

Environmental activists extolled the sins of cattle in the scientific literature, full-page advertisements in major newspapers, colorful coffee-table books, and countless articles and lectures. Some cited writer Edward Abbey, who famously described the Western range as "cowburnt" and denounced cattle as "hooved locusts."

Abbey died in 1989, and although the anti-grazing campaign grew more boisterous and contentious, it never really recovered from the loss of its charismatic leader. In fact, you could say the movement crested in 2001, when the national membership of the Sierra Club rejected the adoption of a "zero cow" policy for the organization by a 2-to-1 margin.

There were many reasons for rank-and-file Sierra Clubbers to vote the way they did, including a rising awareness that ranchers were trying new methods of cattle management that looked to the health of the land as well as the animals.

But I believe there was another, far more important reason. Those conservationists understood that a different sort of crisis in the West had quietly displaced the grazing debate. And this new one would have far more serious ecological consequences. I'm referring to the general sustainability crisis on everyone's lips these days.

The issue began with concern about sprawl, the way unchecked suburbanization was chopping up open space and threatening wildlife populations. Next, we started worrying about our water -- its quality and quantity -- who controlled it, and who needed it.

Then Al Gore made a documentary, and suddenly the specter of planetary-scale ecological devastation became the talk of the nation. Today, our concern has spread to questions about global food supplies, energy depletion and the possible limitations to economic growth.

All of this makes the "grazing wars" of the 1990s feel like a historical footnote. Now, I think it's time to look at the ranchers that remain in business in a new way. I'm convinced that ranching has a lot to teach us about what sustainability can mean on the ground. For one thing, grass, unlike petroleum or natural gas, is a renewable resource. It works using the original solar power of photosynthesis. If it gets the proper nutrients and moisture and isn't grazed too frequently by any species of herbivore, it can regenerate itself endlessly. It has done this for the past 66 million years in North America.

By managing grass and water sustainably, ranchers can teach those of us who live in cities important lessons about stewardship, about ecological limitations, and about respect and humility toward the natural world.

Ranchers can also teach us about the "low-carbon footprint" benefits of producing high-quality grass-fed meat -- food produced without hormones and with minimal fossil fuel inputs. Better yet, we can participate in this history lesson by buying and eating food that comes from local farmers and ranchers.

Many ranchers can also pass on important lessons beyond food. Some have joined large-scale collaborative conservation efforts, some have taken the lead on restoring damaged riparian areas on their land, some are improving wildlife habitat for rare or endangered species, some are protecting open space through conservation easements, and some are sharing their success stories with the wider world.

On many ranches around the West, sustainability is not an ideal, it's a reality. Is everything perfect? No. The rising price of diesel, for example, threatens the financial well-being of many farms and ranches, which often operate on razor-thin profit margins. The West's much-vaunted wide-open spaces look pretty, but they are hell on a landowner's gas budget.

Is there still overgrazing? Yes, unfortunately. But we can't afford the luxury of attacking all ranchers as if they were all alike. The challenges confronting us are too pressing. We need to look to one another to make living in the West work. Healing is one of our tasks this century, and I'm happy to report: On the West's cattle ranches, it's already begun.

Courtney White is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He lives in New Mexico, where he is the cofounder and executive director of The Quivira Coalition, and author of Revolution on the Range: The Rise of a New Ranch in the American West.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Hugs Don't Replace Science
Brian Ertz
Brian Ertz
Aug 18, 2008 01:57 AM
If only it were all so simple and sweet. It's not. I can certainly sympathize with White's want for the warm embrace of a reality other than that with which we are confronted. If only it were true in so many respects...

The truth is - the beauty and wonder of the landscape of the West is characterized by the complex living systems that inhabit this spectacular place. Wildlife, diverse and free, dynamically playing out each's unique and wonderful role - that's what gives us clean water, clean air, and a sustainable trust to pass on to future generations.

Mr. White's characterization of the vigor of conservationist's effort to restore the natural splendor and diversity of the West following over a century of abusive livestock grazing seems pretty indicative of the level of his involvement and understanding of the community. Which is fine I suppose. We all take our serenity and comfort where we can get it - and it would not at all be honest to suggest that Mr. White is alone, or even in the minority, in taking his with a hefty heap of preferred reality.

Sort of like this characterization of the 'cows versus condos' argument. We'd all like to believe that land owners have some principled propensity to hold onto their land despite the prevailing economic winds - we may even have a couple of anecdotal examples to feed the suggestion - but landowners sell when the price is right, and the reality of this fact is demonstrated by the very same urgency with which it is denied. Who owned all of that land recently developed in the rural West over the last decade anyway ?

Similarly, "Open Space" conservation - whose followers have recently grown in response to the development boom - does not necessarily constitute diverse wildlife habitat. Open space may look nice - there's no doubt - but the habitat that supports diverse wildlife is necessarily dynamic and complex in structure. Diverse wildlife likes complex habitat - and if you think about it, that makes sense. So while large ungulates - like big game - may enjoy the cultivated simplified habitat characteristic of cows (another large ungulate) - other species do not enjoy the same benefit. Our water certainly doesn't. And when in competition for natural forage on wild lands - native big game loses - and all of the other species lose given simplification of habitat as well.

I won't deny - it's a pacifying idea: Grass does grow after all - and it's powered by the sun. But while Mr. White can't quite muster past an aversion to what must still be a controversy in his constituent circles - the existence of climate change - to even use the words, this pacifying idea is damaging.

You see, the complexity of the living systems I mentioned above help to mitigate climate change. Our dynamic Western landscapes sequester carbon in the soil and in the dynamic plant communities that thrive absent livestock. Science - not so much poetry - more and more describes the potential of arid lands to sink carbon - arid lands like in the West can sink as much carbon as temperate forests ! Science suggests that its the microbiotic crusts that draw and fix carbon out of the atmosphere and into the soil of these desert landscapes. But these lands don't take well to abuse - livestock grazing churns and compacts out the potential of the soil to provide this incredible ecological service - for different reasons, on more than 300 million acres of Western public lands ! In fact - the soil can absorb global warming gases - but when compacted (eg livestock) some soils only absorb 10% of their potential when not compacted - and in the case of silty clay loam - go FROM absorbing global warming gases TO emitting them ! How's that for a "low-carbon footprint" - or should we say "hoofprint".

And that same grass - the renewable kind - it's largely made out of carbon - and when eaten by livestock, that grass turns into more potent greenhouse gases than when eaten by other animals or insects. That's because livestock are pretty much the least efficient animals to convert that grass from the sun into energy - and when they do convert it - most ends up waste and gets turned into methane (20+ times the global warming gas as carbon dioxide) and nitrous oxide (310+ times the global warming gas as CO2). That's "sustainable" ?

Another thing science tells us is that grasslands excluded from grazing can hold as much as 35% more carbon than those not subjected to grazing - and that restoration of landscapes from grazing has the potential to serve our strategies to mitigate both the harmful effects to wildlife populations that livestock grazing compounds/agitates in the face of climate change (livestock stressed systems are less able to adapt/survive warming temperatures than complex vibrant systems) - but that restoration can be one of the more potent strategies to sequester carbon warming our atmosphere now - into the soil - where it doesn't warm the atmosphere - and the carbon can be fixed in significant amounts within a matter of decades !

All in all - the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization did a comprehensive study and determined that livestock production contributes more to climate change than the transportation sector. Woah !

Mr. White is right about the idea that "the challenges confronting us are too pressing" and that "healing is one of our tasks this century" - but these his use of these ideas are misplaced. We can no longer afford to ignore the science in our efforts to remain pacified to the challenges facing ourselves and our future generations - we don't need so much to heal our relationships with eachother - there's plenty of that - we need to heal our relationship to the Western landscape. We can't irresponsibly leave our children a West denuded, desertified, and simplified because we are too averse to controversy to mention the words "climate change" or to act on the best science available to us. We need to heal - we need to heal Western lands and wildlife habitat because that process of healing - of resting them from the agitation of livestock grazing and other unsustainable soil and plat community disturbing activities - itself largely mitigates the underlying source of one of our generation's most daunting challenges - climate change. This recognition helps clean our water, and keeps more water in watersheds longer, it cleans the air, and sustains robust wildlife populations.

No - we don't need to reduce our understanding of why the Western landscape is the best place on Earth to be by reducing our standards of conservation and science accordingly - we need to expand our appreciation for the dynamic, diverse, and complex systems we live among - to cherish the services that this very diversity affords *as a function of its living systems' complexity*, and foster the ability for it to remain dynamic so that we may continue to enjoy them.

We can't do that by exchanging our best understanding of science with the want or insistence for nicety.

Mr. White - there is a new generation of conservationists insisting that verifiable standards, consideration for critical ecological indicators, and actionable enforcement criteria remains the chief pursuit in rectifying the damage we have done to the West.
I respectfully dissagree
Colby Lord
Colby Lord
Oct 15, 2008 08:42 PM
So what you are basically telling us is that livestock are the only animals with "hooves" in the west that can "compact" the ground that they walk on. Lets take a walk back in history for a moment. Back before ranching was a industy of the west there where millions of Bison that roamed the range and the last time I checked they had hooves.

Coming from a ranching background the place i see more new plant life grow is in the hoof prints of cows, sheep, and wildlife for that matter.

Moving on to how livestock release CO2. Last time that natural process that wildlife, me, you, and little Jonny down the street all do. Comparing livestock and cars on which releases more CO2 really isn't fair because we all release CO2 wheather you like it or not.
Believe it?
Aug 18, 2008 01:57 AM
Just like we can't attack all ranchers (especially the majority in the arid West who have given it up for a day job and now "hobby" ranch), treating ranching as a symbol of all that is Good and American is what has driven bad policy for decades. Read the scientific literature. Drive to Las Cruces, where ranching has irreparably altered the landscape from black grama grasslands to mesquite and creosote shrublands. Watch the Rio Grande flow and ask your state how much of that responsibly managed water goes to cows? Look West to areas that where livestock populations are maintained at artificially high levels at the sake of threatened salmonids. And then ask the soil at what cost? Don't fool yourself, the lesson to be learned here is the same for the Anasazi, Maya, Polynesian, and Greenland Vikings: just when you think you are at the top, don't forget to see how far you have left to fall.
Believe it
Diana K
Diana K
Dec 03, 2008 05:34 PM
Perhaps the best lessons to learn from the Anasazi et all, is that there population and what it needs to survive must be matched to what the resource can produce. There is the "carrying capacity" of the ecosystem and ours (the world) is perhaps overpopulated by humans. This is not a pleasant subject to raise but is one which must be wrestled with.

More humans can be supported on the earth and a change in 'quality of life' or 'lifestyle' can be expected for all. Some will move 'up' and some 'down'. There is no way around this fact of nature as we know it.

They know how to keep the land in shape
Mark Wright
Mark Wright
Aug 18, 2008 01:57 AM
Farmers and ranchers know that you have to keep the land in shape to grow...everything.
That simple.