Don't try to improve grazing; abolish it!

  • Diane Sylvain

My greatest fear about grazing reform is that it will substitute for substantive reform. The grazing fee will increase from one-quarter to one-half of fair market value, but government will kick back even that increase to those ranchers who talk the range reform talk. The increased fee will go to range developments to mitigate livestock damage, which result in yet more damage.

Reform, rather than abolition, presupposes that "better" grazing is possible. But livestock are so destructive and alien to the arid West that better grazing is not possible. Less harmful grazing is possible, but it won't restore ecosystems nor is it cost-effective to the Elite Welfare Ranchers. Advocating better grazing of the arid West is like seeking better beating of little children. It is not the right goal.

Better grazing is also boring to work on. Abolition is much more interesting. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's political problem is not his alone; it is our political problem as well. Because Babbitt cannot deliver range reform, I propose that environmentalists no longer participate in his futile efforts. And because environmentalists cannot deliver the United States Congress on range reform, I propose that we rethink our strategy.

When he became Interior secretary, that potentially great environmentalist Bruce Babbitt made an observation to a gathering of his inside-the-Beltway environmental allies:

"We have been invited down from hills and into the halls of power, where we will stay awhile. We must always be ready to go back to the hills."

It's thinking like this that makes me want him on the Supreme Court. He is a thoughtful person who cares deeply about the environment. He just doesn't play politics very well.

What should the environmentalist strategy be?

We must fight a war of attrition. In the long run, environmentalists have more people, more power, and more money than do the Elite Welfare Ranchers, although in the short run the EWRs have more power. We must make them exhaust that power defending their status quo.

We must pick our battles and our battlegrounds. Their battle is "better" grazing. Our battle must be no grazing. Our best battlefield is the courts, not Congress and not the administration, either in the White House or the agencies.

We must establish more beachheads of cattle-free blocks of the arid West. You can take a stranger to an old-growth forest and to a clearcut and say nothing. Most people, if they aren't blinded by greed, will see that one is inherently right and one is inherently wrong. On arid landscapes where livestock have been pervasive for more than a century, showing someone a healthy ecosystem is more problematic. As we drive the livestock from certain parts of the grasslands, these landscapes will begin to heal, showing dramatic improvement in a short time. The quarter-million acres of Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge is now a cattle-free beachhead due to litigation.

Here are three new beachheads in Oregon:

* The Oregon Natural Resources Council and others are in the process of reducing and hopefully eliminating public-land livestock grazing in those portions of the Snake River Basin which still support salmon, by using litigation under the Endangered Species Act brought by the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. Salmon aren't the only species being driven toward extinction with the help of livestock. Efforts are under way to place Western sage grouse, inland redband trout and numerous other species on the endangered species list.

* Several environmental groups, including ONRC and led by the Oregon Natural Desert Association, are preparing to sue over a livestock allotment where the permittee has failed to get the necessary state permits under the Clean Water Act. The case will be brought by the Western Environmental Law Center.

* Nearly a dozen environmental groups have filed an administrative appeal of the Donner and Blitzen Wild and Scenic River Management Plan. It violates the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act by allowing livestock to lounge along, and destroy, the banks of a wild river. The National Wildlife Federation is representing ONRC in this matter and is seeking to intervene.

WE MUST MAKE IT MORE EXPENSIVE FOR ELITE WELFARE RANCHERS. On forests west of the Cascades, the timber industry used to expend X amount of effort for Y amount of timber. Today, while they still aren't run off the public forests within the range of the Northern spotted owl, they do have to spend 10 times the effort for maybe one-tenth of the timber. The smart ones are getting out. Yes, the government should charge fair-market value for forage, but paying a fair price still doesn't give license to abuse the land. The market pricing system doesn't well reflect society's interest in ecologically intact landscapes. We must make public-land ranching at least half as expensive to EWRs as it is damaging to the land.

WE MUST MAKE IT MORE EXPENSIVE POLITICALLY TO WESTERN POLITICIANS. These senators are doing the bidding of the ranchers because they pay no political price for doing so. The West is the most urbanized part of the nation. Seventy percent of all Americans living west of the Continental Divide live within 50 miles of Interstate 5. Urbanites who are tired of having their pockets picked so EWRs can pick on wildlife must speak out.

WE MUST LITIGATE FROM POSITIONS OF STRENGTH, NOT NEGOTIATE FROM POSITIONS OF WEAKNESS. We have a pile of laws on our side that aren't being enforced. Let us enforce them. Besides the laws I've already cited, let me give two examples:

* The Federal Advisory Committee Act is being routinely violated by the two major support groups of the Elite Welfare Ranchers: the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. The Federal Advisory Committee Act is one of the four pillars of open government along with the Administrative Procedures Act, Freedom of Information Act and the Sunshine in Government Act. FACA requires open meetings and doesn't allow government to seek out special advice from special interests except under a set of very prescribed conditions. Another interesting provision has to do with conflicts of interest among members of advisory committees. FACA can be used to erode the cozy special relationship between the EWRs and their CWBs (-Cowboy Wannabees') in the agencies.

* About a decade ago, Congress dusted off and revised a Civil War era statute known as Qui Tam. I've heard it pronounced "kee-tom" and "kwee-tam" and combinations of both. Qui Tam allows regular citizens - if aware of someone making a false claim to the government about which the government knows but fails to act - to file suit to recover triple damages. It was used against profiteers in both the Civil and Cold wars. There is no reason it can't be used against profiteers in the present war on nature.

ONRC is contemplating starting a "cow cops" program. Rather than having volunteers adopt an allotment, they would police an allotment. Volunteers would learn about the allotment: its boundaries, stocking rates, and the like. They would then make three trips each year to the allotment to count cows: the weekend before the turnout date, sometime during the grazing season and the weekend after the cows are supposed to be off the allotment. If any livestock were found before or after the permit season, or more cows than permitted during the season, then a false claim to the government would have been uncovered.

Lawsuits either compel or allow bureaucrats to do the right thing. But either way, whether to give them a kick or to give them cover, they need the lawsuit.

As that great environmentalist Che Guevara said: You can get more with a kind word and a gun than just with a kind word.

As we continue and increase this war of attrition to restore the Wild West, we must never forget the words of that real, and great, environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams: "Environmentalists must be both fierce and compassionate. At once!"

Toward this end we must recognize the economic consequences to some that abolishing livestock grazing on public land will have. The courts have never considered the privilege to graze the public land as a right, or held that reducing such grazing would constitute a "taking" of property requiring just compensation under the Constitution. But the market does recognize the value of such grazing giveaways. As government takes back the give-aways, the owners of such leasing privileges stand to lose money.

ONRC advocates compensation for lost grazing privileges not as a matter of constitutional right, but as a matter of compassionate response and practical politics.

It's just money! The cost of paying the fair market value per animal unit month would be recovered in only about four years due to the savings in government subsidies administering that AUM. After that, the money saved by not grazing public lands could go toward retiring the public debt, not to mention reducing our ecological debt.

There are those who speak of class warfare between the Old West and the New West. The atavistic ruling class fears the loss of its exalted position at the public trough. They feel threatened by both the altruistic and the hedonistic.

The altruistic are environmentalists who seek ecological restoration of and harmony with the Wild West. The hedonistic are the moneyed refugees from the urban West who seek a better life in the rural West. They have the money, and increasingly the numbers, to control and convert small rural communities. The battle is being characterized as the rich urbanites versus poor ruralites. In fact, it's more accurately portrayed as the hedonistic rich urbanites versus the atavistic rich ruralites.

The poor, as usual, are just collateral damage in the war.

I reject the dichotomous choice of old land abusers or new yuppie scum. But if that is the only choice, I believe the latter is easier to control and its activities easier to mitigate than the former. In this case, I think the devil we don't know is better than the devil we do.

We are in a battle for the soul of the West. It is a battle that has been going on for at least 150 years. I want to close with a quote from Henry David Thoreau who said: "The West of which I speak is but another name for the wild, and what I have been preparing to say is that in wildness lies the preservation of the world."

Andy Kerr is conservation director of the Oregon Natural Resources Council. He was born and raised in the timber town of Creswell, Oregon, has lived in cities for a dozen years, and recently moved to the small timber town of Joseph, Oregon. The county he lives in has an estimated population of nearly 7,000 humans and more than 40,000 bovines, Kerr says. ONRC can be reached at 522 SW Fifth Ave., Portland, OR 97204.

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