Two recently released books, Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West and Ranching West of the 100th Meridian, offer very different visions of ranching's place in the West. In a special feature, High Country News' Ed Marston and Forest Guardians executive director John Horning, review the books and reopen the debate on the future of public lands ranching.

Cow-free crowd ignores science, sprawl

By Ed Marston

Welfare Ranching’s authors, George Wuerthner and Mollie Matteson, are romantics who ignore the threat of sprawl and the studies of scientists in their quest to ban all cattle grazing on the West’s public lands.

Read more (HCN, 12/9/02: Cow-free crowd ignores science, sprawl)

Ranching advocates lack a rural vision

By John Horning

Ranching West of the 100th Meridian is a book of essays that promotes the false idea that Westerners must choose between condos and cows in a landscape never meant for cattle grazing.

Read more (HCN, 12/9/02: Ranching advocates lack a rural vision).


We all have a dog in grazing fight

Dear HCN,

Ed Marston’s recent review of the book Welfare Ranching was disappointing on more than one level. But there was one thing that stuck out pretty profoundly — his criticism that the only reason anyone wants to save rangeland is because backpackers don’t want to step in cow flops.

Lots of folks who work on Western rangeland issues aren’t backpackers, so the criticism, besides being silly, is baseless. But what is really distressing is to see a longtime environmental advocate be won over by the “use” paradigm: The only ones with any real dog in a fight are the ones who use a resource, regardless of what they’re using it for, or what the end result of that use is.

This notion comes out of the most crippled of thinking, and it denies any hope of mental ascendance toward the notion of intrinsic value — that things have independent worth, regardless of how humans might use them. To see a prominent writer like Marston use as his lens the ethical value system that a tick has towards your ankle does not bode well for him, or for the West.

Charles Pezeshki
Moscow, Idaho

Ranchers grow good food, strong communities

Dear HCN,

I found John Horning’s diatribe on Western ranching amusing. His knee-jerk reaction to what is a staple of Western culture and economics shows his naivete in these matters.

Most of the ranchers I know here in the West truly have a deep and serious interest in their livelihood, acting not only out of short-term economic necessity but also with an eye toward long-term ecological health. To do otherwise would be shooting oneself in the foot.

A tremendous opportunity exists right now for ranchers and progressive environmentalists (not the knee-jerk fundamentalist types) to coalesce into a productive partnership to ensure continued sound rangeland management practices. This partnership has a long way to go, but if the objective is to continue to find ways of preserving rangelands for future generations, then it’s a win-win proposition for everybody.

We must find ways for ranchers to derive value-added prices for their cattle, for ranchers to get closer to consumers and be paid handsomely for the healthy animals that they raise. Livestock ranchers of the West, most of them relatively small family operators, offer a healthy alternative to the corporate-feedlot medicated varieties available to the masses.

Perhaps the strongest argument for preserving Western livestock ranching is that it has the chance of bringing at least this food source (beef) closer to home. A recent study concluded that the food on an average American dinner plate has traveled some 1,600 miles. The adverse environmental impacts of that travel are too lengthy to list here, but the number one impact is fossil fuel energy production and consumption.

The adverse environmental impacts of a few cattle grazing in the woods and on pastures for a few months of the year pale in comparison to the environmental and political impacts associated with our growing reliance on the corporate totalitarian food system.

Tony Daranyi
Norwood, Colorado

Recreation is more harmful than ranching?

Dear HCN,

While I find some common ground with Ed Marston in his views on cattle ranching in the west, I am disturbed by a few assertions made without foundation. The most perplexing is a reference to “studies that show recreation is more harmful than ranching.” This is somewhat reminiscent of the claim by ranching advocates that “insufficient grazing in grasslands causes ecological harm.” When I chased that one down in the technical literature, I found support for it to be somewhere between thin and nonexistent, but in any event almost entirely dependent on one’s definition of “harm.”

In the case of recreation vs. grazing, what type of recreation: cross-country skiing, four-wheeling? What intensity: seasonal, daily? In what type of allotment: riparian, lowlands, uplands, alpine? Under whose management: Forest Service, BLM, Park Service? Where’s the data?

Bernard R. Foy
Santa Fe, New Mexico

It’s Marston who ignores science

Dear HCN,

Ed Marston’s review of Welfare Ranching: Ranching advocates lack a rural vision) accuses the book’s authors of ignoring science and sprawl in concluding that public-lands grazing should be terminated. Well, my copy of the book doesn’t bear that out at all.

Instead, I found numerous short, factual articles written by many specialists in most of the land-management sciences, documenting the damage that results from grazing and its associated activities, and citing hundreds of scientific articles to support their findings. In fact, I found the volume long on fact and short on rhetoric, which is exactly the opposite of what I expected.

As an experienced researcher, writer and technical editor, I found much in the book to admire. Where else, to cite one small example, can you find an accurate description of the nature and destructive effects of grazing on microphytic soil crusts? This should be a large issue to public-land managers, but few even know what crusts are.

It seems to me it is Marston who ignores empirical findings of science, and whose take on ranching approaches romanticism.  

Ronald M. Lanner
Placerville, California 

Marston responds

Dear readers,

Here are the articles I used for my review of Welfare Ranching. 1. Who owns public land ranches and how much private land is associated with them comes from B.J. Gentner and J.A. Tanaka, Jan. 2002, Journal of Range Management 55 (1).

2. The various causes of threatened and endangered species ranked by severity, can be found in B. Czech, P.R. Krausman, P.K. Devers, July 2000, "Economic Associations Among Causes of Species Endangerment in the United States," BioScience, Vol. 50, No. 7, 593-601. The list, starting with the largest cause, follows: exotics, urbanization, row-crop agriculture, outdoor recreation and tourism development, and ranching.

3. The biological richness of our mainly private lowlands and the biological poverty of our higher elevation public lands is described in J.M. Scott, R.J.F. Abbitt and C.R. Groves, Winter 2001, "What Are We Protecting," Conservation Biology in Practice, Vol. 2, No. 1.

4. The effects of trails on sensitive species is in S.G. Miller, R.L. Knight and C.K. Miller, 1998, "Influence of Recreational Trails on Breeding Bird Communities," Ecological Applications 8 (1), 162-169.

5. The data showing that conversion of rural land to residential and commercial uses is occurring at a much faster rate than population growth is in R.L. Knight, W.C. Gilgert, E. Marston, 2002, Ranching West of the 100th Meridian, Island Press. Pp. 25-32.

— Ed Marston

Find common ground on ranching

Dear HCN,

I want to compliment you on the reviews of Welfare Ranching and Ranching West of the 100th Meridian: Ranching advocates lack a rural vision). Both Ed Marston and John Horning have similar and laudable objectives and identify issues important for resisting urbanization and gentrification of our unique Western lands.

But Horning does not offer any concrete suggestions. He talks about “another culture ... that rejects consumerism ... ” Fine, but what is this culture, and where will it come from? It seems to me that Marston’s vision of ranchers who are good land stewards is closest to the mark. But how to change attitudes that have been entrenched for a century?

It seems to me that the only answer is dialogue between those that live on the land and those who don’t have the opportunity but want to see it preserved. And there must also be a dialogue between those that live on the land and those outsiders (in government agencies) who have responsibility for managing the land.

Let us hope that common ground can be found. High Country News can play an important role.

John E. Douglas
Spokane, Washington

Time to ride into the sunset, Marston

Dear HCN,

So, Ed Marston is now Senior Journalist. I guess we will be hearing more from him. But I wish not. Does Ed not realize that his new opinions on ranching are being presented as an endorsement of not just those ranchers who attempt to engage in sustainable grazing (perhaps in itself an oxymoron) but as an endorsement of the whole ranching/farming industry?

But we know that ranchers, grazers and arable farmers distribute onto the land more toxic chemicals than any other industry. After all the millions of tons of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and insecticides, is it any wonder we are witnessing the dramatic disappearance of amphibians, birds and mammals from our land?

Ed, it’s time to ride off into some fantasy Western sunset, you wrangling man!

Adrian Wilson
Denver, Colorado

Is vegetarianism the answer?

Dear HCN,

I hope John Horning’s vision of a sensitive culture looming on the Western horizon that “embraces the West’s wild heart” and refuses “to glorify gun violence” exceeds his expectations in sweep and fulfillment.

A fully sensitive and harmonious culture, however, would look beyond the simple dichotomy of cows vs. condos and push deeper into the ethical issues affecting our relationships to animals as well as the land. I hope that Horning’s “culture waiting to flourish” would embrace the value of all life, regardless of its form.

This includes cows. W.H. Hudson, a naturalist who knew cows, wrote: “ ... the gentle, large-brained, social cow, that caresses our hands and faces with her rough blue tongue, and is more like man’s sister than any other non-human being — the majestic, beautiful creature with the Juno eyes ... .”

Isn’t it possible that the cows vs. condos dichotomy would evaporate if the new cultural paradigm included a commitment to vegetarian stewardship?

Bob Muth
Kalispell, Montana
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