This is an essay by George Wuerther on the topic whether we have to choose cows or housing development. I put it up in reponse to Wilderness Muse’s query on another post.

Note: this was written in 2003.

Condos or Cows? Neither! (1-20-03 edit)

by © George Wuerthner
Box 839
Richmond, Vermont

FLAWED STRATEGY

Ranching advocates present a false choice when they assert we must preserve ranching or suffer unrestricted sprawl.

Their ranching-as- land- preservation strategy is flawed in several ways.

First, livestock proponents vastly underestimate the ecological costs of livestock production. Growing cows in the West involves more than grazing grass, and the environmental impacts are countless and cumulative.

Second, livestock proponents ignore the vast differences between development and livestock production in the physical, geographical footprint. Livestock production affects nearly all of the non-forested landscape in the West in one fashion or another, whereas sprawl and its impacts remain relatively concentrated.

Third, livestock proponents often eschew mechanisms that succeed in preventing sprawl in order to promote livestock as the only viable alternative to full-scale development..

SPRAWL AND ITS IMPACTS

There is no denying that sprawl is socially and ecologically detrimental to human and wildlife communities. Sprawl fragments wildlife habitat, raises costs for services, increases energy use, forces longer commutes, requires more roads, spreads weeds and causes many other negative impacts that affect everything from taxes to wildlife migration patterns.

Fortunately, sprawl is relatively concentrated. Development is not the dominant feature of the West. The West is dominated by open space, as anyone who bothers to look can attest.

The majority of development in the West occurs around urban centers, where jobs, educational opportunities and amenities are found. Or it occurs in resort areas.  Real estate developers aren’t rushing to North Dakota or many other parts of the West to cash in on the next bonanza. Rural towns such as Burns, Oregon, and Jordan, Montana, only wish they were a developer’s dream.

RANCHING ISN’T BENIGN

While ranching advocates are quick to point out the negative impacts of sprawl—as they should—they fail to apply the same critical analysis to the social and ecological effects 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 and truncate nutrient flows.

The cumulative impact of livestock production across the West explains why it is responsible for more endangered species than any other land use. Livestock production is the largest source of non-point water pollution and soil erosion, the greatest consumer of water and a major contributor to wildfires. It’s also a chief reason why predators such as wolves and grizzlies have been reduced to token populations.

GEOGRAPHICAL FOOTPRINT

Though sprawl is consuming more and more land in the U.S., particularly in the West, animal agriculture affects 20 times more of the American landscape. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only 3.5 percent of the lower 48 states is developed, whereas livestock production impacts 70-75 percent of all land area in the U.S. This figure includes public and private lands that are grazed, and farmland used for forage crop.

Looking at the West, we see the same disparity between developed land and lands affected by animal agriculture. 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 4.5 million acres of Colorado’s farmland are devoted to livestock forage crops such as feeder corn and alfalfa. These agricultural fields are every bit as disastrous as shopping malls for most wildlife. Hay or corn fields 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.

Open space is not the same as effective wildlife habitat. Even lands that are grazed rather than farmed remain unsuitable for many species. This becomes clear when you study a low-population state such as Montana. As anyone who has flown over Montana or driven along its empty highways can attest that there’s a lot of undeveloped land in the state. Recent population figures indicate that 87 percent of Montana’s land area has fewer than 6 people per square mile!

Only 0.17 percent of the state is affected by development. In contrast, nearly 70 percent of the land is grazed, and more than 5.5 million acres consist of irrigated crops that feed livestock.

For all intents and purposes, most of Montana is still uninhabited. So why are prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets, wolves, grizzly bears, swift foxes, sage grouse, Columbian sharp-tail grouse, Montana graylings and countless other threatened or endangered species unable to thrive in a place that’s practically deserted? If “open space” were synonymous with good wildlife habitat, there would be no endangered species in Montana.

The problem is clear. Animal agriculture has devastating effects on species and ecological processes such as predation, fire and nutrient flow.

LANDSCAPE SCALE CONSERVATION

Turning a blind eye to ranching impacts won’t prevent sprawl. At best, the hope that livestock production can contain sprawl is a blunt tool. It is a passive, unfocused approach that occasionally results in “coincidental conservation.”

Sprawl is driven by demand, a land grab that ranching does not guide or limit. Given the rapidly growing populations of many western states, relying on livestock producers to maintain open space and critical wildlife habitat is like playing Russian roulette. Such a strategy depends almost entirely on the whim of a landowner and rarely works to safeguard the ecological integrity of a landscape.

If we want to control sprawl, there are effective, active methods that work: zoning, planning, conservation easements and outright acquisition. Though all have drawbacks, they can restrict or guide development.

Many states realize they cannot count on low-value land uses such as farming, ranching and timber production to prevent development. Thus they have embarked on more aggressive land-acquisition programs. Florida, California, New York and New Jersey, among others, have instituted large-scale acquisition programs designed to permanently protect lands from development. Florida, for instance, hopes to protect at least 50 percent of its land through this program.

Some western states have taken halfhearted steps in the same direction. Voters in Nevada, Colorado and Arizona have approved bond issues to fund land acquisition. States such as Oregon, New York (in the Adirondacks), and California (through the Coastal Commission) have instituted statewide or regional zoning that has dramatically reduced sprawl. In New England, large-scale conservation easements have spared more than 1.8 million acres from development in the past few years alone.

FALSE CHOICE

The argument that we must choose between condos and cows is a false one. Neither is desirable, and both should be restricted as much as possible. If we enact proven land conservation policies and reduce the amount of land devoted to livestock production, I believe –the West will be a better place than it is today, even as more people discover its wonders and desire to live there.

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About The Author

Ralph Maughan

Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University with specialties in natural resource politics, public opinion, interest groups, political parties, voting and elections. Aside from academic publications, he is author or co-author of three hiking/backpacking guides, and he is President of the Western Watersheds Project.

18 Responses to Condos or Cows? Neither

  1. avatar catbestland says:

    I live next to an exclusive development near Telluride Colorado. It is almost 7000 acres, most of which is kept green and designated as wildlife habitat. It is surrounded by National Forest. Formerly, it was a cattle ranch. Even old timers agree that there is much more deer and elk in the area now since the cattle have left. The developers immediately took down hundreds of miles of barb-wire, which was a boost to the wildlife. The homes are clustered around the golf course. The very few (and with the economy there may not be any more) residents and guests apparently don’t mind the herds of deer and elk on their golf course.

    The only problem they seem to have (aside from the fact that they may go broke) is that cattle from the neighboring national forest grazing allotments continue to break down the fences and help themselves to the smooth fairways and sand wallows they seem to think exists for them. I am trying to convince the naturalist that it would be better for them to lease the allotments themselves instead of having to pay to repair the fences and damage to the golf course so often. We are right on top of the Uncompahgre Plateau and it is also a perfect habitat for wolves if we can get the cattle out of there. So in this case I believe development is better for wildlife than cows.

  2. avatar Wilderness Muse says:

    As presented in his article, George, for the most part, makes a very compelling case. Cows and condos are both bad for the environment (plants and wildlife) of the rural West. Both need to be controlled as much as possible. The only element missing from the discussion is the economics of both – jobs, income and stability for those who wish to live here, or thos who have lived here for generations. Therein lies the rub.

    Co-existence of increasing human footprints, in whatever form they take, overlaid on what was previously virgin ground has its problems. The West is big, BUT the places people and cows like are often the same as essential wildlife require for survial on a seasonal basis – critical winter habitat and unfettered migration corridors. Fences, houses (the family dog running free), roads and other aspects of urban/recreational development sprawl mean annihilation for critical habitat and death for migrating animals! I wish I had more time to discuss this today, as I have had considerable experience in this area. Unfortunately, I am committed to other activities.

  3. avatar JB says:

    The real problem isn’t cows or condos: the problem is livestock on PUBLIC lands. Roughly ~70% of the West is federally-owned, most of that is subject to livestock grazing. That means only ~30% remains to be developed (which will never happen); as Wuerther less than 4% of the US is developed at the moment and less of the West is developed than any other part of the country.

  4. avatar Wilderness Muse says:

    Cat,

    One of the areas I would have discussed is Telluride and the Uncompahgre (as well as Aspen, Estes Park, Steamboat, Banff, Jackson Hole and Sequim, WA to name a few). You would be glad to know I would very much prefer wolves on the Uncompahgre to Texan elk and deer hunters. Much!

  5. avatar catbestland says:

    WM,

    I’m afraid the Umcompahgre Plateau is doomed to high-end development. It’s the new Aspen. But there are some other nearby areas that are PERFECT wolf habitat. ~ The Lizard Head Wilderness, and the Wiemenouche, as well as the Uncompahgre Wilderness, (not the Plateau) which used to be known as the Big Blue. All of these are very rugged. Not the best cattle grazing country, though there are still some cattle and sheep in some areas. There really should be a concentrated effort to get wolves into these places.

  6. avatar Elk275 says:

    JB

    ++Roughly ~70% of the West is federally-owned, most of that is subject to livestock grazing.”

    Montana is a part of the west and not the entire west but Montana is approximately 93 million arces and 29% of the state is federal land and 5.9% of the state is state land. Millions of federal acres are isolated tracts from 40 acres to several thousand with no public access. I wished the state was 70% public land then I would not have to hunt that hard for a place to hunt.

    George states in his thesis that land developers are not developing areas around Jordan, Montana. There are a number of 160 acres subdivisions of private land in the Missouri Breaks county around Jordan.

    Originally, the land was homesteaded in 160 tracts and the homesteaders sold or the county sold them for back taxes. Now we are going back to 160 tracts, I wonder where we will be in 60 years.

    I am leaving to go mountain sheep hunting south of Red Lodge. I bet this goes over well with a few of you.

  7. avatar JB says:

    Yes, Elk you’re correct. Only about 50% of the West is held federally (http://strangemaps.files.wordpress.com/2008/06/map-owns_the_west.jpg). I was guestimating based upon my knowledge of Utah (~57%), Idaho (~50%) and Nevada (~85%).

    Still, I’m having a hard time finding pity for you, given that 1.7% of the state that I live in is held federally. Thirty percent sounds like paradise to me.

  8. Actually Idaho is 62% U.S. public land!

  9. avatar JB says:

    Ralph / Elk: I’ve looked at several sources and they all seem to be slightly different. Here’s what the National Wilderness Institute says:
    http://www.nrcm.org/documents/publiclandownership.pdf

    Highlights of Western States:

    State: %Public: %Federal
    AK: 89% / 60%
    CA: 42% / 40%
    CO: 39% / 35%
    ID: 67% / 61%
    MT: 35% / 29%
    NV: 81% / 80.9%
    OR: 32% / 27%
    UT: 70% / 63%
    WY: 56% / 48%

    And now the Midwest:
    IA: 1% / 0%
    IL: 2% / 1%
    IN: 2% / 1%
    MI: 22% / 10%
    MN: 18% / 7%
    OH: 3% / 1%
    WI: 16% / 6%

  10. avatar Wilderness Muse says:

    JB

    Certain federal reserve status lands will sometimes be excluded in these summaries. For example, Indian reservations and military reservations, can be substantial excluded acreages in some states. Other summaries look only at lands administered by USDA or Interior.

  11. avatar JB says:

    WM: You’re right. Fortunately, the National Wilderness Institute lists it sources which include: BLM, USFS, NPS, NWR, ACE, Military Bases, and Tribal lands. However, the data was aggregated in 1995, which I believe predates Grand Staircase-Escalante NM (which adds another ~2 million acres to Utah).

  12. avatar JB says:

    “…I wished the state was 70% public land then I would not have to hunt that hard for a place to hunt. ”

    Elk:

    If I’m reading these tables correctly, the amount of public land in Montana exceeds the amount of total land in Ohio.

    I’m having trouble finding sympathy for you at the moment.

  13. avatar Save bears says:

    JB,

    One of your problems is, no body wants, needs or desires your sympathy, you as an American have the choice to move to a state that has that much public land, the power is in your hands, so don’t think you need to have sympathy for those of us that live in the west…

  14. avatar JB says:

    “…One of your problems is, no body wants, needs or desires your sympathy”

    I don’t see where that’s a problem for me–as I was having a hard time finding any. If nobody needs, wants or desires my sympathy then the status quo seems to satisfy us all.

    “…you as an American have the choice to move to a state that has that much public land, the power is in your hands…”

    We are all constrained by our family, finances and the job market for our chosen occupations. To suggest one can simply pick up and move across the country anytime one pleases is to greatly oversimplify the amount of freedom one actually has. (I smell a retort on this one).

    “…so don’t think you need to have sympathy for those of us that live in the west…”

    Fortunately, I haven’t had a hard time finding a place to hunt, so I don’t need any sympathy. By the way, what’s up with you this morning? Wake up on the wrong side of the bed? Or maybe you haven’t got your elk yet?

  15. avatar Save bears says:

    Elk is in the freezer JB.

    As far as over simplification, it seems as if many do that quite often.

  16. avatar JB says:

    “As far as over simplification, it seems as if many do that quite often…”

    Quite right. But I never thought you would be one to justify such an oversimplification on the basis that such behavior is common.

  17. avatar Save bears says:

    JB,

    Sometimes, oversimplification, is one of the most complicated equations to solve and unfortunately being involved in this so long, I have seen it be justification on both sides of the issues.

    As far as something being wrong with me this morning, I guess, I am just tired of the simple answer being the most complicated solution…

  18. Wilderness Muse posted this to the wrong thread. Due to his effort, I am putting a copy on the thread he meant — see below. Ralph Maughan

    Wilderness Muse. November 1, 2009 at 8:33 AM

    As presented in his article, George, for the most part, makes a very compelling case. Cows and condos are both bad for the environment (plants and wildlife) of the rural West. Both need to be controlled as much as possible. The only element missing from the discussion is the economics of both – jobs, income and stability for those who wish to live here, or thos who have lived here for generations. Therein lies the rub.

    Co-existence of increasing human footprints, in whatever form they take, overlaid on what was previously virgin ground has its problems. The West is big, with considerable federal ownership. BUT alot of it is very high elevation, rough topograpy, high salt soils, seasonally lacking water and essential vegetation for good forage. It is hostile to most of the species we as humans think are nice to have around. In short, a considerable portion of this land in federal ownership is not the kind of stuff that is inhabitable or useful for either humans or “desireable wildlife.” Is it beautiful to the eye? Yes. Is it full of natural resources we as humans think we need? Maybe, if it has oil shale, gas, possibly minerals, and that will result in its possible destruction if not in some federal protected status (NP, monuments, wilderness).

    The places people and cows like to live are often the same as are essential to wildlife for survial on a seasonal basis – critical winter habitat and unfettered migration corridors. In addition to those pesky federal grazing allotments that suck up wildlife forage, cause soil erosion and destroy vegetation, the fences, houses (the family dog running free), roads and other aspects of urban/recreational development sprawl mean annihilation for critical habitat and death for migrating animals, especially in really bad winters!

    As a young graduate student I, and several other students, mapped critical wildlife habitat and migration corridors for the Roaring Fork Valley (Aspen) and two other drainages in Pitkin County, CO. Lower elevation (snow free longer), flat ground with some vegetation and cover along riparian zones, with adjacent moderate slope hillsides with cover for protection from winter storms are what is needed for deer and elk to survive the winter months. These are the same habitat requirements for cost-effective road beds and desirable for building condos, golf courses, and ski area parking lots. In other areas federal grazing allotments take up much of this habitat for cattle which destroy it from overuse in the summer months. Lax oversight of permittees results in drastic, and even permanant destruction of wildlife habitat as Ralph and the folks at Western Watershed Project remind us.

    As a consultant and/or employee of local and federal government early in my career I saw this pattern repeated over and over again through many Western states. In Colorado it was Aspen (altough they have done a better job of land use than most because of the uber-rich), Steamboat Springs, Estes Park, Vail Valley, Avon, and even out in Sequim, Washington. Most National Parks in the West suffer the same consequences at their borders where service communities have sprung up over the last 70 years.

    Catbestland reminded us of what is happening in Telluride (note: that’s what happens you have internationally successful jazz concert venue, beautiful scenery and an enhanced air transport system that gives Texan an easy vacation in relatively cheap Southern Colorado).

    Jackson Hole is not much different than the areas described above. Here the uber-rich have even gone so far as to have Polo grounds for their new part-year residents and retiree residents, much to the disappointment of locals (this conflict began in the late 1990’s if I recall correctly). The salvation for elk is the nearby nearby wildlife refuge. Further to the west are elk feed lots in Idaho along the state line shared with WY, in the parts of Star Valley (between the Greys and Salt River ranges) not occupied by condos and luxury homes, where moose also roam the subdivisions getting in trouble with dogs.

    And then there are the cities and towns where most of us live, acres of wildlife habitat being sucked up to accomodate growing human populations. Same issue as described above. We want to live on the low elevation, flat land with rivers, where we locate our roads, water and sewer plants, and build houses, condos and golf courses. I almost forgot NASCAR race tracks that consume thousands of acres of prime wildlife habitat, and they want to expand to the West.

    Is it fatal to all wildlife? Not always, as George apparently communicated to Ralph. It does, however, increase the opportunities for human-wildlife conflict, and we all know who loses those battles, whatever the species.

    One last war story. Some of the best mule deer specimens I have seen live within the city limits of Boulder, CO, (or at NCAR, the National Center for Atmospheric Research on the hills above) where they are prohibited from being hunted. Dogs are regularly gored by nice 5 point bucks or thumped by does protecting newborn fawns. And then, there are the racoons who will take on anything. The populations expands beyond carrying limits then they have to be “controlled” by wildlife agents.

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Quote

‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey

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