Ranching advocates lack a rural vision

  • Ranching West of the 100th Meridian, edited by Richard L. Knight, Wendell C. Gilgert and Ed Marston, $25. Island Press. 2002.

  • IMAGINE A WEST WITHOUT COWS: The Gila River in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico

    Michael Berman
 

In the summer of 2000, in the midst of one of the most intense droughts in the Southwest in decades, I was radicalized by fire. During an 11-day backpack across the Gila Wilderness, my companion and I came across one of the rarest events in the cow-burnt landscapes of the West - a gentle fire, dancing slowly through an old-growth ponderosa pine forest.

McKenna Park, the area where the fire burned quietly for more than two months without generating so much as a whisper from the Western political establishment, has been off limits to domestic livestock for nearly half a century. As a result of the exclusion of cattle and sheep, knee- and waist-high fescues and other native grasses blanket this rolling parkland, while beavers dam mile after mile of trout streams bordered with dense thickets of cottonwood and willow.

That experience was just one in a long line of ecological epiphanies I have had since moving to New Mexico in 1994. They have each led me to a simple conclusion: Cattle grazing on much of the Western landscape makes no ecological sense, and further, has little economic relevance.

Beavers and fire are two critical ecological agents that will continue to be marginalized by the rancher-centric worldview promoted in Ranching West of the 100th Meridian, edited by Richard L. Knight, Wendell Gilgert and Ed Marston. The book is a collection of essays that celebrate and eulogize ranching and the rural culture that has grown up around it in the last 140 years.

At the center of the book's worldview is the belief that ranching, with slight ecological modifications, can save the West from the looming onslaught of development. This pervasive view, echoed by the book's many contributors, is the product of a popular cultural mythology that refuses to see the ecological wounds that scar the Western landscape, and grow deeper every year.

The editors of Ranching West of the 100th Meridian promote the false dichotomy that Westerners must choose between either cows or condos; between flood-irrigated alfalfa pastures or another Wal-Mart. For the same reason that I disagree with President Bush for framing the post 9/11 geopolitical situation as one of either good or evil, I reject the notion that we can only have either cows or condos.

The dichotomy doesn't work for two basic reasons.

First, ranching in an arid landscape is not economically vibrant enough to prevent sprawl. It is, and always has been, an economically marginal activity. Ranchers regularly lose money. This financial reality is only acceptable because of a seemingly endless list of direct and indirect taxpayer subsidies to ranchers on the order of $500 million per year.

Ranchers have been selling out to developers for a century or more, not because of pesky and persistent environmentalists or because they couldn't get along with their local BLM range con, but because ranching, as a business, stinks. And it's not getting any better.

If Westerners are serious about preventing sprawl from destroying private lands that are important wildlife corridors or biological hotspots - and we should be - then we can't hide behind the cowboy myth. We must place much greater priority on conservation easements, land-use planning and private land acquisition.

As it is now, we're getting the worst of both worlds - ecologically damaging cattle grazing and largely uncontrolled sprawl. Our public lands are being held hostage by ranchers who angrily oppose wolf reintroduction, persecute prairie dogs and continue to allow their livestock to destroy streams, even after they've sold their private lands to become the latest 'Elk Meadows' subdivision. Second, the editors of Ranching West of the 100th Meridian routinely fail to consider the true ecological impacts of livestock grazing and production in the West.

As narrowly framed by Marston, Knight and Gilgert, the ecological debate about ranching in the West is little more than a conflict over how to manage grass. It's not surprising then that the editors cite a 1994 National Academy of Sciences report to defend their position that livestock grazing is, at worst, ecologically benign. Yet that report, which used inconclusive evidence to determine whether range conditions have improved or worsened in recent decades, completely ignores the reams of evidence from the non-agriculturally oriented scientific community that implicates livestock production in the endangerment of hundreds of imperiled desert, grassland, aquatic and even forest species.

The Academy of Sciences report and Ranching West of the 100th Meridian also ignore the role that cattle grazing - by removing grasses that fuel low-intensity fires - has played in disrupting natural fire regimes across the West's drier forests. Likewise, they fail to openly admit that the sole reason wolves are embattled refugees on the Western landscape, and that federal agents kill almost 90,000 coyotes per year, is to make the West's open spaces safer for sheep and cattle.

And what of the continuing war against prairie dogs and beavers, keystone species whose loss has resulted in the near collapse of Western stream and grassland ecosystems? Or the hundreds of Western creeks dammed and diverted for the purpose of flood-irrigating alfalfa to sustain cattle in the winter or to fill stockponds on land where cattle could not otherwise exist? Streams, the arteries of life in the arid West, are not only routinely clogged with cattle, but have also been literally removed from the landscape to sustain cattle.

Perhaps the greatest failing of those who embrace the ranching culture is their unwillingness to envision another rural culture that has a wholly different relationship to the Western landscape and its wild inhabitants.

Like Knight, Gilgert and Marston, I too believe that we are working, as the late author Wallace Stegner once said, to find "a society to match (the West's) scenery." What I and other cattle critics have in common with some of those who seek to sustain ranching on public lands, is an abhorrence for the homogenizing influences that are slowly seeping into our distinctive Western culture and landscape.

From there, our visions part radically. The society we seek is one that doesn't endlessly persecute the West's wildlife, glorify gun violence, arrogantly presume a right to divert an entire creek's flow, or turn desert grasslands into scrub.

There is another culture - even in the West's rural outposts - that rejects consumerism, Wal-Mart, and the senseless sprawl that is sterilizing our precious Western heritage. The culture waiting to flourish as ranching inevitably wanes across the arid West is one that embraces the West's wild heart, its droughts, fires, wolves and all of the extremes of this stark and beautiful land that we call home.

John Horning is the executive director of Forest Guardians, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

High Country News Classifieds
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected]mail.com for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.