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Know the West

Wishful thinking about a corrupt institution

  Dear HCN,

I am writing in response to the letter from Courtney White (HCN, 12/3/01: Grazing story ignored radical center), wherein he chastised your paper's failure to focus on the "radical center" in the public-lands grazing debate. He claimed, "There is a progressive ranching movement afoot, and there are plenty of good stories out there."

I think he's practicing wishful thinking, at best. I've been a public-lands grazing activist in the Southwest for more than a decade. There have been changes over the years, but a widespread movement in the ranching community to cooperate with conservationists in order to implement ecologically sound livestock management isn't one of them. Of course, there are some ranchers who are sincerely trying to mitigate the impact their cattle are having upon the public land they are permitted to use. But few of them are making much money at it, especially here in the hot and arid Southwest. That's because the implementation of adequate livestock management generally involves building expensive fences to restrict cattle from riparian areas, and cutting cattle numbers to limit upland forage utilization levels. Since these changes obviously reduce profits, the pool of willing ranchers is a small one.

In my experience, most of the "good stories" Mr. White referred to are little more than ranching propaganda. They usually involve a rancher starting a local collaborative working group to implement a Holistic Resource Management (HRM) grazing system. The lure of HRM, also called time-controlled or short-duration grazing, is that it seems to promise everything to everyone. In particular, it promises to keep cattle numbers high. But it's based upon ecological theories that have been repeatedly discredited by years of scientific research. HRM may be better than nothing, but it's inferior to conventional livestock-management systems, where the stocking rates and pasture moves are dictated by compliance with conservative forage-utilization levels.

As for finding middle ground, here in Arizona, I cannot remember one conservation initiative that the cattlegrowers have supported, nor can I think of one that they didn't oppose. Even so, ranchers are still able to exploit Western myths and claim they are good stewards of the land.

The flip side of this is that grazing activists are usually characterized as bad guys, with sinister motives, even if they are just trying to get the Forest Service, or the BLM, to enforce longstanding environmental laws. I refuse to let the debate be defined that way. I would like to see the end of public-lands grazing. There, I said it.

There's the issue of fairness, of course. Ranchers have been permitted to graze their livestock on public lands for a long time, so it's not practical to try to end it everywhere immediately. But it could be phased in through a grazing-allotment retirement program that creates an equitable financial mechanism to encourage ranchers to voluntarily surrender their grazing permits. All it would take is for Western conservationists to embrace their real feelings about the corrupt institution of public-lands grazing.

Jeff Burgess
Tempe, Arizona