Condos or cows? Neither!

  Dear HCN,
Ranching advocates like Ed Marston and Rick Knight present a faulty argument when they assert that ranching can prevent sprawl (HCN, 1/20/03: THE GREAT RANCHING DEBATE). If we wish to prevent sprawl and its effects — a worthy goal — we need to implement effective land-conservation strategies. Ranching as a land-preservation strategy is flawed for three major reasons.

First, livestock proponents vastly underestimate the ecological costs of livestock production. Livestock production involves crop production, water diversions, predator control, fences and many other activities that carry tremendous ecological costs. Livestock spread weeds, fragment wildlife habitat (particularly aquatic ecosystems, because of water diversions for irrigation), transmit diseases to native wildlife, consume forage that would otherwise support native herbivores, trample soils, pollute water sources, degrade riparian areas, truncate nutrient flows and short-circuit ecological processes.

  Second, livestock proponents ignore the vast geographical differences between development and livestock production in their respective physical footprint on the land. Animal agriculture affects 70 percent to 75 percent of the U.S. land area — development affects less than 3.5 percent. In the West, it is even more skewed. For instance, a GAP analysis conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey shows that only 530,000 of Colorado’s 66 million acres are affected by development, whereas 33 million acres are grazed by livestock. Worse yet, more than 15,722,500 acres of Colorado’s farmland are devoted to livestock forage crops such as feeder corn, hay and alfalfa. These agricultural fields alone are every bit as disastrous as shopping malls for most wildlife. Hay or cornfields typically consist of exotic plants that are removed annually. Many of these crops are irrigated and guzzle precious water. Such fields effectively fragment and degrade more terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems than all urbanization and sprawl combined.

  Third, perhaps the most flawed part of the ranching-as-preservation strategy is that ranching isn’t preventing sprawl now, nor will it in the future. Sprawl is driven by demand. Demand usually leads to rising land prices, which in turn make it impossible to expand ranching operations through new land acquisitions. It also means that anyone not already a millionaire cannot even dream of entering the industry. When the cost of land ownership rises above the price that can be returned on investment raising cows, ranching will gradually be replaced by higher-value land uses — usually development — if demand is present. Fortunately, the greatest demand is concentrated near urban centers and resort communities where jobs, medical facilities, educational opportunities and other amenities are found. People are not flocking to North Dakota despite cheap land. No demand. No sprawl.

  The only effective means of controlling development in the face of rising land values is to use proven, directed conservation mechanisms like zoning, conservation easements and outright fee purchase to protect landscapes.

  The argument that we must choose between condos and cows is a false one. Condos or cows? Neither, is my response!

George Wuerthner
Richmond, VermonRichmond, Vermont

The writer co-edited the book Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West.
High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Forever Our Rivers Foundation is searching for a driven and creative leader to build a movement, conserving and restoring America's rivers by helping customers find...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Friends of Cedar Mesa is hiring a Deputy Director/COO who will have the overall responsibilities of general program management, staff management, financial & budget management,...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • OFFICE ADMINISTRATOR AND BOOKKEEPER
    Posted: July 19, 2021 Application deadline: August 27 or until position is filled. Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking a fulltime Office Administrator...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Posted: July 15, 2021 Application deadline: August 21, 2021 or until position is filled Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking three full time...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...