An in-your-face range scientist

  • Jerry Holechek

  • Cows graze on BLM "range restoration site" near Congress, Ariz.

    George Wuerthner

Note: this feature article is one of several in this special issue on the West's land grant universities.

LAS CRUCES, N.M. - In the wake of a drought that left the Southwestern range parched and degraded, scientists at New Mexico State University are busy: They're figuring out which cattle breeds do the best in the desert. They're mediating disputes between ranchers and Forest Service officials. They're planning to bioengineer a micro-organism that may help cattle safely digest locoweed - a plant that greens up earlier than grasses do, and which is poisonous to cattle.

But in a cluttered office in the range science department are a couple of boxes of academic papers that contain a more radical prescription for the damaged range. Authored by Range Science Professor Jerry Holechek, the papers contend that ranchers should run a lot fewer cattle than they do. Government subsidies to ranchers should be abolished. And if ranchers want to sell their grazing permits to environmental groups that would phase out the cattle, they should be allowed to.

Holechek believes that federal lands range policy needs to be changed at the roots, not around the edges. That means dismantling what he sees as the twin engines of destruction: subsidy and overproduction.

"Scarcity is no longer the real problem in agriculture," he says. "The real problem now - whether it's beef or wheat or corn - is oversupply."

Holechek's reasoning goes like this: The current oversupply of beef keeps prices down. Government subsidies, like drought relief and capital improvement programs, feed that oversupply by encouraging public-lands ranchers to undertake expensive construction projects. To pay back the construction debt they've incurred, ranchers stock their grazing allotments with as many cattle as possible. This leaves their finances, and the land, vulnerable to devastating loss when drought hits or beef prices dive (see "If rain doesn't fall ..." next page).

Holechek argues that once ranchers lose subsidies, they lose the incentive to put too many cows on the land. While subsidized ranchers may clear a larger profit than their unsubsidized neighbors for a few years, overstocking isn't profitable in the long run because the range gets degraded and the cattle become less productive.

Some ranches are already conservatively stocked, and the size of the cut would vary from place to place. But West-wide, Holechek says, cattle numbers could be cut by about one-third. This wouldn't shrink ranchers' profit margins. They would likely grow because the ranch would have low overhead costs as well as a healthy range that would sustain the herd in dry years.

"We need to quit thinking like a bunch of Neanderthals, promoting the old idea of maximizing stocking rates and using the high-input approach," he says. "I often wonder if subconsciously there's a desire to perpetuate nonsustainable practices because as long as we degrade the system, the land-grant colleges, the BLM, (and) everybody that services land degradation prospers ... I think there's a certain self-interest in never really solving these problems."

Getting in hot water

Holechek's ideas have not been met with universal enthusiasm. Other academics have accused him of over-reliance on cutting numbers. Last month, after he spoke out against government feed programs on a national ABC news program, a member of the New Mexico Farm Bureau fired off an angry letter to the dean, and another rancher called Holechek to threaten the job he has had for 16 years.

Holechek, however, is no stranger to adversity. On campus, his habit of expounding on his views in The New York Times and The Sacramento Bee as well as the scholarly Journal of Range Management has sent other faculty complaining to the dean.

But Holechek doesn't scare easily. He has the nerves of an outsider - even better, an outsider with tenure. He applies the same free-market attitude to the university system as he does to the public range, producing numerous publications on a bare-bones budget and refusing grant money for projects he considers irrelevant. He hasn't aligned himself with ranchers, environmentalists, or any other organized group. Rather, he remains true to his startlingly strong belief in the power of the free market to solve economic and environmental problems, to a nearly visceral distaste for wasting public money, and to a conviction that the public should know what he's doing.

"In academia, unless you run a real in-your-face operation, nobody pays any attention," he says. "I'm paid by the taxpayer. What good am I if I run a clandestine operation? Who have I served?"

Agriculture Dean John Owens has no problem with Holecheck's high profile. When he saw him on ABC News, "I thought, there's Jerry Holechek," he says. "The essence of Holechek. Pushing the edge of the envelope, doing what you expect him to do."

Says Holechek, "I give a lot of credit to the administration that we have protecting faculty freedom of thought and expression." But he shies away from discussing the waves he's made in the department, except to say, "I don't hang around in the coffee room, soliciting peer group approval." When I leave his office, he closes the door behind me.

A contrast in styles

Dean Owens says that there is room in the college for scientists who want to make sweeping changes as well as those who work within the system. "We should do both!" he says. "That's what universities are all about."

Take, for example, the university's Range Improvement Task Force. Commissioned by the state legislature in 1978 to do research and extension on grazing issues, the task force's approach differs from Holechek's in both philosophy and style.

When the task force is called onto the range to help with a grazing dilemma, "we probably wouldn't go in there with destocking as a first-choice alternative," says John Fowler, an agricultural economist who has led the task force for a decade. "We're strong believers in managerial inputs - reconstruction of the management plan; sometimes it means long-term capital investment."

And while the task force's work is controversial - it's particularly criticized by environmentalists - Fowler strives for a low profile.

"I don't want to make waves," he says. "My goal is to continue working for the state long-term. And my goal is the resources. I have to work with the agencies, the industry, the environmental groups."

In contrast, Holechek and his colleague, writer and independent range scientist Karl Hess, plow right into the policy arena. They think that changing the law to allow ranchers to convert their grazing capacity into recreational or wildlife use would be a "real low-cost, peaceful way to solve (financial and environmental) problems." Under this approach, a rancher could sell his grazing permit to, say, The Nature Conservancy, which could phase out grazing.

Holechek thinks that generating broad ideas is right in line with what he should be doing: "It's my impression that the universities should be a source of new ideas, rather than just perpetuating the status quo," he says. "Should we forever use a system that leads to a high amount of conflict? What's wrong with new ideas that involve passive approaches to improving the human condition? If we were advocating the overthrow of the government I think criticism might be in order, but I don't see our approaches as being draconian or radical or violent or even unpractical. I don't think I or Karl have ever advocated anything but a peaceful, passive approach. Look how inflammatory the present system is!-

Holechek has a strong ally in Hess, with whom he co-authors newspaper articles and editorials. He has good relationships with local BLM officials, ranchers and environmentalists.

"I think Jerry's an honorable and extremely knowledgeable man," says David Koehler, who worked for the BLM in New Mexico before moving to Idaho. "I had an experience 15 years ago with one of his colleagues at a trial in Santa Fe. I saw this guy get up and prostitute himself and lie-he said all the erosion (on the contested grazing allotment) was due to geologic processes (rather than overgrazing). It was a blatant prostitution. I've seen a lot of guys do that; I'd rather have a guy like Holechek get out there and tell it like it is."

Koehler, who is now an area manager for BLM in Idaho, finds a lot of common ground with conservative stocking.

"I think (cuts in numbers) would be appropriate in many locations," he says. "The agencies don't have the mechanisms to do that when it's required."

Does Holechek believe that if subsidies were removed, every public lands rancher would develop a burgeoning environmental ethic?

"Most of the work I've done shows that with the removal of subsidies, nonsustainable land use is financially very unsound," he says. "Most ranchers, I think, take a long view as well as a short view. They basically, as most businesses, want to maximize their profits. I'd think as rational profit maximizers they'd respond to this positively; they'd want to conservatively stock their lands."

Practicing what he preaches

Although he has had tenure for nine years, Holechek holds it in disregard: "It's too often used by people to put themselves out to pasture and not do anything," he says. "If more people took it to take an unpopular position, I'd feel differently about it."

His research costs about $15,000 a year, a fact of which he is proud. "I think I'm the lowest-cost researcher here," he says. Department Head Bobby Rankin says that the figure constitutes about the average baseline government funding in the six-person department.

"What he's not doing is getting outside money," says Rankin, adding that grants from government agencies and private sources range from $2,000 to $200,000.

Holechek has turned away grant money from the U.S. Army to research the impacts of tanks on the vegetation at nearby Fort Bliss.

"I guess somebody considers every kind of research necessary," he says. "But I see the resources as being highly limited, and my time is highly limited, and if I went off and did that it would mean us keeping away from other studies. I want to go right for the most important problem I can do research on, and then I want to get as much visibility as I can when I do it."

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