If rain doesn't fall, the money will

  • Photo by Steve Johnson

 

LAS CRUCES, N.M. - Drought returned to the West last summer, with a little help from the federal government. Ranchers from Oregon to New Mexico - their herds grown too abundant as a result of a well-intentioned drought relief program - let grass-starved cows and sheep strip parched rangelands bare.

The emergency feed program, run by the Department of Agriculture, is open to all ranchers on private and public lands. For the majority who use it, it provides free corn plus 50 percent of the cost of extra feed needed to keep their livestock alive in years when grass growth is at least 40 percent below normal.

These payments might make sense in real drought emergencies, but in fact they bear little relation to the weather. In New Mexico, rainfall has been above average for five of the past six years, yet so has federal drought relief. In Oregon, ranchers have collected their relief checks in dry years and wet.

At $100 million to $500 million a year, the payments are mere drops in the pork barrel compared with the billions spent each year on farm subsidies. But they do environmental harm far out of proportion to their modest size.

More than half of New Mexico's ranchers take advantage of the program, and no wonder: it pays them an average of $4,000 a year in cash, about 15 percent of their net ranching income. (Some ranches are too small to take part in the program, and a few abstain on principle.)

Since payments are based on herd size and grass shortfall, the extra money encourages ranchers to build herds too big for the region's fragile grasslands to sustain. Livestock numbers in New Mexico are probably 25 percent higher today than they would be without drought relief, according to a recent study at New Mexico State University.

Oregon ranchers do even better, averaging more than $11,000 a year in cash payments. In one grazing district this year, ranchers got $30,000 to $50,000 each, allowing them to overstock their parched rangelands by about 50 percent.

The federal program gives the ranchers carte blanche to overstock. By paying their feed bills whenever grass is scarce, Washington tells them that it's all right to overgraze because the taxpayer will make up the grass deficit. Ranchers, no less susceptible to the lure of subsidies than the rest of us, do the government's bidding.

Yet for each year they overstock and overgraze, their rangelands produce less grass, and with less grass their appetites for drought relief mount. Rather than protect parched pastures, the least scrupulous hammer the range to dust in expectation of a federal lifeline - a lifeline they now need almost every year, since the soil won't sustain their herds even in wet years.

It's a vicious and degrading downward spiral, one whose burden falls most heavily on private rangelands, which make up 40 percent of the total. Unlike federal grazing lands, which can be closed to livestock during extreme drought, private lands in the West have no protection against the emergency feed program except the conscience of the individual rancher. These lands must bear the ecological brunt of a program designed to benefit a small, politically potent group.

Like other farm subsidy programs, emergency feed relief is aimed at helping the little guy. Yet small ranchers are probably the biggest victims of the bailout program.

First, emergency feed relief pays benefits mostly to medium- and big-time ranchers. Second, for small ranchers who do take part, drought relief is an albatross. It discourages them from adapting to the reality of the desert, even though they have the most to gain from adapting. It seduces them into greater debt even though they are the ones least able to afford it. It entices them to denude their grazing lands even though they have too little land to squander. And it sustains an oversupply of beef and lamb, depressing livestock prices for the very people who are most victimized by low prices.

Even the best ranchers, small and large, suffer the indignities of federal drought relief. If they do the right thing, steer clear of the congressional pork barrel and reduce herds grown too large, their reward (in the short term) is smaller profits.With all the talk in Washington about slimming the government, it is strange that not a discouraging word is being heard about subsidies that do such palpable harm. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's campaign for higher grazing fees on public lands is undercut by this Agriculture Department subsidy for overgrazing. So is the environmentalist campaign for sustainable land use in the West. And the ranchers' pleas for self-determination - a mantra for Western Republicans from the Reagan-era Interior Secretary James Watt to senators Alan Simpson and Pete Domenici - are cheapened by their constant dipping into the federal till.

Rangeland reform that produces an equitable public-land grazing fee, fosters sustainable use of arid land and promotes grassroots democracy in the West is a noble cause that deserves everyone's support. But it can't happen as long as the government perpetuates the effects of drought on the range - and makes it pay for those who cooperate. n

© Copyright 1994 The New York Times Co.

Karl Hess Jr. is author of Visions Upon the Land: Man and Nature on the Western Range. Jerry L. Holechek is professor of range management at New Mexico State University.

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