Few issues over the years have stirred up as much dust in the pages of High Country News as the debate over ranching and livestock grazing. "Cattle ruin the land," shouts one side. "Anti-grazing environmentalists commit cultural genocide against ranchers," shouts the other.
publisher Ed Marston decided to look beyond the tiresome hyperbole
in the 1990s, and found a third approach: progressive ranchers who
were experimenting with ways to ranch that are better for the land.
"Keep good ranchers on the land" became Marston’s theme.
It’s a nice sentiment, but the fact is that
ranching is dying in the West. While we were debating whether or
not cattle could be grazed in an ecologically sound way, the
Western landscape we all care so much about was run over by a Mack
The truck, as Jon Christensen points out in this
issue’s feature article, is driven by the good old American
marketplace. Foreign livestock producers and a monopolistic
meatpacking industry have made it almost impossible for ranchers to
make a living. Then there is that alluring temptress we all face in
America: the rising real estate market.
often have ties to the land that go several generations deep, they
find it as hard as the next person not to sell out, when they hold
land worth millions and people with checkbooks come knocking on
their doors. In the last 30 years, nearly a quarter of the
West’s private ranch lands have been converted to other uses,
according to the American Farmland Trust.
All of this
spells huge trouble for the West, because these lands are some of
the most beautiful and biologically rich that we have. If current
population and land-use trends hold, the Western landscape of the
future will diminish to a patchwork of over-used, highly regulated
public lands, surrounded by ever more sprawling suburbs. Wildlife
that traditionally came down from the mountains and plateaus to the
well-watered rivers will be cut off and confused by the tangled
maze of roads, fences, houses and strip malls.
Fortunately, as Christensen notes in this first installment of
HCN’s new series on private-lands conservation, plenty of
people are resisting this vision. Over the past decade, progressive
ranchers, conservationists and a host of local, state and federal
entities have quietly built a movement that seeks to save some of
this land. Land trusts are sprouting up everywhere in the West, and
they have protected more than 2.5 million acres through
conservation easements and outright purchase of lands.
The land trust movement is not a panacea for ranchers. Yes,
conservation easements are allowing some ranchers to stay on the
land for at least another generation. Even with easements in place,
however, raising livestock will continue to be a marginal economic
activity for all but the most innovative, and the luckiest.
But it’s a hopeful sign for the West’s
vanishing rural landscape. For the paramount question we must
address today is not, "How do we save ranching?" but, "How do we
save the land?"