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Know the West

Ranching is preventing sprawl

  Dear HCN,
George Wuerthner is a skilled photographer and a committed activist, but he’s a lousy economist. His letter (HCN, 2/17/03: Condos or cows? Neither!) and his recent book, Welfare Ranching, amply testify to this.

Wuerthner asserts that “ranching isn’t preventing sprawl now, nor will it in the future.” Yet he also states that high land values mean “that anyone not already a millionaire cannot even dream of entering the (ranching) industry.” Curious, isn’t it: Ranches cost far more than returns on livestock can justify because the private land is so valuable as potential ranchettes, yet ranchers continue to ranch, and millionaires continue to buy ranches, without subdividing. This isn’t news. Economists have been struggling to explain it for more than 30 years, and the best conclusion they’ve reached is that ranchers and millionaires are willing to absorb the massive opportunity costs of ranching despite the economic “irrationality” of doing so. In other words, ranching is preventing sprawl now, has been for several decades, and will probably continue to do so for some time.

The problem with Wuerthner’s argument is that, while demand may drive subdivision, it’s not the ranchetteers who actually subdivide land; it’s big landowners, whether they’re ranchers or developers. The general pattern of subdivision occurring “near urban centers and resort communities” doesn’t account for ranches that have subdivided in remote areas during periods of speculative madness — such as the early 1970s and late 1990s — and have in many cases left bladed, eroding roads, unmanaged land, and delinquent taxes when the demand has failed to materialize. That there are still as many big, wide-open spaces out West as there are is largely the result of ranchers — some of them very wealthy, some not — declining the overtures of speculators hell-bent on fragmenting the deeded land for a quick profit.

Wuerthner’s call for “zoning, conservation easements and outright fee purchase to protect landscapes” is naive. Zoning has been in place throughout the 50-odd years that sprawl has ruled. Easements and fee purchase are quite simply inadequate to the task. Private ranchers own an estimated 107 million acres of private land attached to federal grazing permits. That’s less than half the acreage of the permits, but the deeded land is far more important ecologically than the higher, drier, less fertile public lands — as conservation biologists have recently documented. If we use a rough, probably conservative figure — say, $400 per acre — it would take more than $40 billion to “protect” this land, not to mention the costs of managing it indefinitely. Conservation organizations will never have enough money, and the cost will only rise as time passes. Taken in aggregate, ranchers do have it — it’s invested out there right now in big, unfragmented properties.

Sure, some ranchers aren’t great managers, but some are very skilled, and many are at least as good as the public agencies that might replace them in Wuerthner’s fantasy. Even under mediocre management, I’ll take one cow every 40 acres, over one house, any day.

Nathan Sayre
Tucson, Arizona

The writer is the author of Ranching, Endangered Species and Urbanization in the American Southwest: Species of Capital.