Save the land by saving the rancher

  • Amos Eno


The behavior of Congress might seem unusually erratic, but one thing can be confidently predicted: The Interior Appropriations bill for 2012 will contain the largest cuts in conservation funding in 40 years. Look for lots of hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth in environmental circles.

For many reasons, though, I see this as a godsend for ranchers across the West. Whenever public land expands, the private land near it tends to face increasing regulation -- the pattern for approximately a hundred years. Much of our public policy and funding has been dedicated to protecting our rich estate of public lands. But what few people understand is that most of the West's public land is over 3,000 feet in elevation; our federal conservation lands are an inventory of rock, ice, evergreen forests and high sagebrush deserts.

Private ownership is where the West's most bio-diverse lands exist, and they are found where the region's lifeblood is -- around water. Privately owned ranches host the bulk of riparian areas, creating the arteries and veins that flow through our arid and mountain regions. That makes Western ranches the most important segment of private lands in America today -- five times more important than lands east of the Mississippi. They're crucial because they provide all the water for Western metropolitan areas, as well as the water that's needed to nourish agriculture, fish, wildlife biodiversity and winter ranges. Ranchlands also provide water for recreation and offer thoroughfares for transportation and our energy grid.

If we want to save the American West as part of America's great heritage, we need to save its ranchers. Unfortunately, traditional federal government programs and conservation dollars don't provide the help they need. The most serious problem facing ranchers these days is purely demographic: The average rancher is over 60 years old. More than ranchettes, ski areas, and oil, gas and coal development, the aging of our ranching community is dictating the destabilization and loss of ranches across the West. That is why ranchers need an array of tools and services to help them achieve both a sustainable future and a smooth transition within their families and associations. Once they do that, their working ranches can survive and even prosper into the 21st century.

Because ranchers tend to be conservative, individualistic and self-help-oriented, the organization I lead, Resources First Foundation, takes Lao Tzu's approach: "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish; feed him for a lifetime." The nonprofit offers an array of Web-based tools and services for the ranching community including the,,, The Alternative Enterprise and Agritourism Resource Evaluation Guide (

I know that in the environmental community, most people think land trusts are the solution; I think they are only part of it. The Private Landowner Network, for instance, hosts over 1,000 attorneys specializing in tax and estate planning and conservation practice, because before a rancher contacts a land trust, he will more likely call an attorney or tax and finance advisor.

Why? It all comes down to a matter of trust. In many ranchers' eyes, unfortunately, the environmental community and its many offshoots are not sources to be trusted. That is why the websites the foundation lists are neutral and avoid any environmental advocacy. In addition to attorneys, we host consulting foresters, Ag Extension offices, conservation districts, appraisers and hundreds of wildlife, grazing and irrigation companies. We list all the federal (USDA and Interior Department) programs that have technical assistance or on-the-ground program services for landowners, plus most state programs that apply. And we include clean energy services, such as home wind-system providers, bio-fuels and new financial players for carbon markets.

So, when you hear the outcries against reductions in federal funding for land acquisition, don't forget that even minimal funding adds to a federal infrastructure that's groaning under the weight of an enormous operations and maintenance overload -- to the tune of $25 billion in 2010. Think instead of ways to support the livelihood of ranchers across the West. Whenever you can, buy grass-fed beef from the nearest rancher. It's not only good economics for the ranchers; it's good eating for you.

Think also of supporting ways to assist ranchers' long-term survival and intergenerational succession. So far, the most important tool on the horizon is the Gerlach-Thompson Conservation Easement Incentive act, HR 1964. Currently pending in Congress, it extends tax deductions for conservation easements and will do more to perpetuate the legacy of ranchers than all the traditional programs combined.

Amos Eno is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He directs the Resources First Foundation, a nonprofit that connects people to conservation.

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

Mark Bailey
Mark Bailey Subscriber
Sep 08, 2011 03:24 PM
It’s hard on the truth to say that ranching is good for any of the land in the arid West, particularly the riparian areas. Cows reek havoc there, no matter what. Why not give ranchers the individual choice, and the right, to sell their grazing rights into conservation and water-ranch their water rights? Yes, it’s somewhat the end of a way of life, but it could and should be a graceful one. Since these public land ranches only provide 3% of the nation’s beef, but use 2/3′s or more of the public land and water, it’s a way life that will end all by itself, either well or badly. Change happens. Let’s at least give the ranchers a choice of a “golden saddle.”
Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Sep 13, 2011 04:48 PM
Let 'em eat buffalo. Seriously, the high plains watersheds survived millennia of trampling by herds of buffalo that dwarf the largest cattle ranches. Not to mention elk, deer, and antelope. The pristine, untrammeled lands are largely imaginary.

Well-managed family ranches aren't the problem. Corporate ranches? Might be a different story.

I would ask the writer to clarify the implication of the age of ranchers - 60. Do you mean that the family ranches will die with the current ranchers, thus providing opportunity for corporate ranches?
Sep 18, 2011 01:41 PM
There are serious issues to consider regarding the relationship between private ranches and conservation, especially conservation of imperiled species and water. Too often, though, we fail to get at those issues because of sweeping generalizations, false statements, and false oppositions which accomplish little more than immediately turning the conversation into battle.

Unfortunately, Amos Enos’ article is a perfect example of this.

Right out of the gate hits us with a false opposition based on a false premise. He calls massive cuts to conservation funding in the Interior Appropriations bill “a godsend for ranchers” even though it will cause “hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth in environmental circles.” Such funding is supposed to bad for ranching because it will be used to convert private land to federal land, causing new regulations on adjacent private land.

In fact, a very tiny percent of conservation funding in the Interior Appropriations bill is used to purchase private land. The vast, vast majority goes to managing public lands and providing grants to land owners—ranchers and farmers included—to better manage their private lands. And the tiny proportion devoted to buying private land is heavily supported by developers, ranchers and farmers because it gives them more options to deal with properties which are often difficult to make a living on, but valuable to the public for conservation purposes. It also helps shift the financial cost of species conservation from the private to the public sector.

So why go down this road? Why ensure maximum controversy and opposition by proposing a zero-sum game in which “hand wringing environmentalist” must lose conservation funding so that rancher can benefit? Especially when the zero-sum game can only be engineered by false premises?

Don’t get me wrong. There are some zero-sum games in this world. There are battles over land management where some will win and some will lose. We need not shy away from them. But also need not create them where they don’t exist.

Wouldn’t it be vastly more honest and effective to say “hey, let’s increase conservation funding while we also use private and public funds/initiatives to improving ranching practices”?

Along a similar line, it’s become too common in ranching arena to promote the conservation value of private ranches by denigrating—to the point of falsifying—the value of public lands.

Enos, for example, tells us that most western public lands are above 3,000 feet, and are thus an “inventory of rock, ice, evergreen forests and high sagebrush deserts” in contrast to the “bio-diverse” low elevation ranches. Anyone who’s been to the Gila National Forest, Yellowstone National Park or Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge can testify to the biodiversity and importance of lands over 3,000 feet in elevation. And below 3,000 feet? There are many millions of acres of National Wildlife Refuges, National Forests, BLM lands, and federally funded state conservation areas.

And what about those evergreen forests and sage brush deserts? They are very biologically diverse and important.

Nor is it true that private ranches “provide ALL the water for Western metropolitan areas.” Ranchers hold considerable water rights in the West, but this is vast and unnecessary exaggeration.

If you want the public to support your agenda, you’d do well to not needlessly pit it against environmentalists, public lands, and conservation funding.
Karen Sweet
Karen Sweet
Jan 17, 2012 02:42 PM
Amos, thank you for your thoughts and your organization's role to provide resources to private landowners.
Phillipp Wickey
Phillipp Wickey
Feb 04, 2012 09:57 PM
After reading this article then the rebuttal by "subscriber" I am a little more than confused. I don't know enough on the topic to say one way or the other. I can say this though, the author of this story has a name, so if I want I can verify his qualifications. "Subscriber" on the other hand I cannot. Some of the rebuttal by "S" doesn't need much research, but is more a matter of opinion. Same goes with Mr. Eno, do ranchers not trust environmentalists etc? I don't know. If anyone has any solid non-partisan numbers (or links to numbers etc) please post.