Cattle ranchers declare a new 'War on the West'
Rocky Barker takes note :
Two months before Obama’s inauguration, cattle ranchers declare a new ‘War on the West?’
This aggressive political posture in response to the prospect of change has been characteristic of livestock associations throughout the West since the beginning of their history. The survival of their influence, relative to the public’s interest at large, is stoked by their self-inflated sense of victimization – wolves, coyotes, even bighorn sheep and pygmy rabbits – i.e. the natural world, become a perceived threat to their ‘livelihood’ and exclusive political influence (a hyper-influence Ralph Maughan has aptly likened to a Western anomaly of political feudalism – a closed system of power practiced right here in these ‘democratic’ United States). The prospect of a president who stands behind a science objectively describing the natural world’s imperiled state is a threat.
If we’re to be honest about it – Livestock has been waging ‘War on the West’ for a very long time. Take a look at these photo galleries compiled by WWP monitors – documenting the condition of your public lands this year :
The rambunctious (dare I say ‘belligerent’) call to arms coming from the Idaho Cattleman’s Association (ICA) might be more rational than one might otherwise think – it works – it has worked to divert politicians’ perception of what constitutes a “problem” away from the actual condition of Western public landscapes, waters, and wildlife to the perception that the problem is a bunch of rambunctious cowboys. It’s a diversionary tactic that works.
In the past politicians and many conservation voices have outright folded (and continue to) – not wanting to confront and ‘deal with’ the struggle that is promised of them should they insist on a just and objective consideration for science and the greater public interest at large. ICA and others know this – and so they’ve gotten an early start.
One of my favorite authors among the first to describe and confront this was Bernard DeVoto – whose essay ‘Sacred Cows and Public Lands‘ appeared in Harper’s magazine in July of 1948 and gives some profound historical perspective on this more recent event. The struggle DeVoto describes (and documents more thoroughly than so many of our day) illustrates the political narrative Livestock employs, the theatre of it, and its unique ability to silence good well-meaning people who would otherwise not remain silent.
Will it work this time ?
22 Responses to Cattle ranchers declare a new 'War on the West'
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De Voto’s “Easy Chair” columns in Harpers from the late 40s are classics of conservation. Would it be possible to place .pdf of all those he wrote on the livestock industry online? They are a great resource.
from what I understand the articles haven’t come out of copyright yet – so i can’t post them.
they are a great resource – DeVoto’s account of the public land Livestock interest rings as true today – and our public landscapes desperately need a voice as unfettered as his was – one that is as able to catch the attention of policy makers and move them to act.
What a poweful presentation these are. I hope that you are able to get them out to the public at large.
These cattel ranchers have no more right now than they did six months ago. Yet, for as long as we can look back, their control has reigned over disasterous happening after disasterous happening.
Could you tell me, how much public grazing occurs on state land in Idaho, and how much on federal lands? Or just the break down of federal and state lands.
In the upcoming years, how much can be done to end grazing from a federal stand point? Will the new administration be able to effect what occurs on state lands? Or will it predominently be federal lands that they can save?
In order for the to effectthe use of state lands, do they have to have a trump card, such as an endangered species?
Who exactly granted grazing permits? Is that done on both state and federal levels? Can private citizens bring suit to end the abuse on public lands, on behalf of public interests? Could the bring suit to rectify damages and pay for reforestation, water way clean up, etc? Is the public, by way of the government, considered landlords or lease holders?
Have there been any efforts to consider moving those who ranch using public lands? Would there be a viable location that their leases could be swapped with? (Not that cattle are great anywhere, but is there a place where it is less damaging to have them…)
Sorry, I am full of questions. I just cannot help but become enraged when I see that these ranchers cannot turn the pages of historyand step out of their power hungry ways. Their utter disregard of the interests or rights of anyone else or anything else is testimony to their selfish arrogance and sense of entitlement. I really take issue with their belief that they have a right to use what property is public for their personal gain. If they were using it with a leave no trace approach, fine….but they use it with a consume, destroy and profit approach, and that is wrong.
I can empathize with their concerns for having a viable livelihood. BUt it is my understanding that most ranchers have to subsidize their income (noone subsidizes mine, yet my taxes subsidize ranchers on so many levels…shame on this process.) I have read thatthey usually have second jobs, and were it not for the virtually free use of public lands, they couldn’t even afford to ranch at all. So if we are already giving them so much, shouldn’t we all have a say in what we give, what it is used for, and how we give it?
Couldn’t we do a relocation/re-education program instead?
I think that truly to put an end to livestock grazing on federal public lands one of the things we need to go after the “multiple use” concept. As long as livestock grazing is listed in statute as an appropriate use of the public lands, and multiple use is the guiding principle, the presumption on the part of the livestock industry is that grazing is a right, not a privilege. Legally, it is a privilege, but politically, it’s considered a right.
At a minimum, we should replace multiple use with the “conservation first, compatible uses only” approach of the national wildlife refuge system.
Grazing and state school lands is another issue. These lands were given to the states out of the public domain at statehood to produce income for the schools under the trust concept. Technically and legally speaking, this means that the trustees, or fiduciaries, generally the top elected officials in the state, are required to maximize income from these lands for the schools.
As one might expect, grazing fees don’t produce much income for the schools, but the livestock industry in many cases has appropriated control of state lands to itself and in many cases is able to obstruct other, more lucrative uses. There are ranch houses built on state land in Wyoming.
Unfortunately for conservation, the minerals industry does produce such lucrative income, so even if you work to get livestock off state school lands, there’s not much you can do legally to prevent mining or drilling. All you can do is regulate it.
Copyright is for 28 years and to be extended for another 28 years the copyright holder must positively file for an extension. De Votos Easy Chair essays in Harpers on the livestock industry all date back to the late 1940s. Copyright no doubt lay with Harpers. It would be unusual for Harpers to have filed for copyright extension on magazine articles and I’m not aware that all of them have been published in book form. It might be something to check out. We all agree that De Voto’s essays are historically important and we ought to make them available to contemporary conservationists. De Voto, who was from Utah, had the ranchers down cold.
So, those houses that were built? Who do they belong to?
Could they use those lands for something like wind farms? Or solar grids? Maybe that is wishful thinking.
I like your approach in your above statement. Do you think those changes are feasable?
Thanks so much for all the info.
The Western Watersheds Project, then named the Idaho Watersheds Project (IWP), got its start by trying to outbid livestock operators for state land grazing leases.
IWP usually won these auctions, but was denied the lease by the Idaho State Land Board because they weren’t ranchers, or at least had the wrong attitude. That was because the IWP plan was to pay the bid price and also pay the cost for each AUM on the lease, but not actually run any cattle.
The result was that Idaho schoolchildren would get more money from the lease and the leased land would recover from grazing damage.
Despite the actions of the Land Board, IWP went on to eventually get some leases through court action.
The federal government is even worse in some ways. The federal grazing leases are not open for bidding. The FS and the BLM assign the lease to a nearby ranch with a “base property.”
Base property is private land where the livestock can presumably be kept when they are not on the federal land.
A book could be written about how this actually operates and the abuses.
Ralph, so why don’t we just buy the “base property” it would get the grazing lease away from the ranchers, plus would also keep them from destroying the private lands as well with grazing
– – – –
Ans. Outsider: I see Debra K answers this below. It has, and is being tried. Please read her comments.
I would assume that base property is owned by ranchers. They are not likely to part with their land.
So would we be better off changing legislation to limit the use of public lands? Could that be pulled off? Or would it be faster and easier to change the process by which leases are aquired and make them open to bidding?
If we were able to bid on federal lands, where would that money come from?
Maybe Outsider hit on something. I know there is a lot of land that comes up for sale bordering national forests. So if enough of that land was bought, and enough leases were aquired, we could effectiveley diminish the amount of cattle that could be grazed. But the questions still remains, who pays for it? And would it be enough land to make a dent?
Could the DOI, if ever having enough cash flow, purchase base properties and then convert them to national forests? Then stipulate that those lands could not be grazed under newer regs?
I know that in RMNP, there were ranchers and homesteaders on the land before it was made a national park. Instead of booting the people off, I believe they were bought out, and given use of the house for the life of the house-as long as it was passed down through family, it could never be sold. Why not do the same for the ranchers? They could be paid fairly for their property and still allowed to live, free of charge, in the home they occupied.
What a huge mess. It is astounding how this is all done.
Ralph, Robert, Brian or anyone else…….
1.Do these leasing rules apply to Montana also and what is the duration of the lease?
2. Since IWP was awarded leases through court action, wouldn’t that have set a precedent?
3.Is it stipulated that only cattle or sheep be grazed? ( I know it’s a stretch, but bees are considered livestock in Montana).
4. Has WWP bought out any leases in states other than Idaho?
5. The requirement to run cattle…..is there a minimum number of cattle that must be grazed?
Thanks for any info you can provide.
Ok now these are my opinions only. I was raised on the idea that if you can’t make it what you got then you best start thinking of a new career to go into. For me the same applies to ranchers. If you can’t make a living from the livestock you have on your own property then its time to get out of ranching. Lets end this wellfare ranching. Heck I finally had to come to the realiziation that my photography business was not making any money and close my business, no one bailed me out. Our public land is dwindling down folks. This land is out there for you and me and our children to come to enjoy. It high time our elected officials stand up for whats right and not just what is going to line their pockets. I can tell you from experience that cattle to cause lots of damage to the lands. One of my favorite streams to fish use to be the lower part of Silver Creek over in Picabo, but when the racher down there started letting his cattle graze right in the creek the fishing went to hell and has never returned. The bottom line is cattle ranching, grazing livestock on public land is broke and its high time it get fixed and fixed the right way.
yes vikif lets have the gov buy up private lands and make them public, this not only increases its size and wastfullness but also deminishes the local tax base, no private property taxes paid on land after gov buys it up. If the “one” can rasie hundreds of millions, why not use the same money for the greater good of the people and buy up this base property. It would the be in the hands of people who better know how to take care of it and all our problems would just go away, like the evil livestock owners.
Buyouts of base property are a good idea conceptually, but have encountered obstacles in practice, primarily from the federal agencies who are reluctant to permanently retire grazing permits. The Grand Canyon Trust and National Wildlife Federation have had some success in retiring permits in valuable wildlife and/or recreation areas, see e.g.
My opinion is that private conservation purchases of base property and attached federal grazing permits may be helpful in the short term, but don’t get at the root of the problem.
The “range management”activities of the BLM and Forest Service are so cumbersome and unwieldly, why perpetuate their continued administration of allotments, “range improvements” (such as fencing and troughs which often adversely affect wildlife), monitoring, and the like, which are a little known cost of the public lands grazing program.
The permit system on federal lands should be effectively terminated by some type of carrot and stick program, starting with voluntary buyouts funded by federal dollars (something like the tobacco farmer buyout in the south).
State lands are entirely different, and very state specific as to how they’re administered. In Idaho, the State’s reactionary Land Board has an arcane grazing classification for state endowment lands leased, in which a lessee has to certify that it intends to graze livestock on a leased parcel. Also, apart from the State endowment lands, there are other state-owned lands in ID, such as IDF&G Wildlife Management Areas, that are leased for livestock grazing! How or why hunters will put up with having their hunting grounds trashed by cattle is mystifying.
I concur with Robert that the ultimate solution to the grazing issue is a legislative one. Grazing laws harken back to frontier-era mindsets and practices, and need to be brought into the 21st century.
Lots ! Many of the regulations that conservationists (i.e. WWP) have been demanding that federal agencies enforce already exist – the problem is, with as much political control in the hands of Livestock politicians as was the case before, the threat of political interference always loomed over litigation. That is to say – if WWP brought litigation against some remarkably abusive livestock grazing on lands in Southern Idaho – there was always the threat that Larry Craig (or others) could use their position on committees to sneak riders exempting their good ol’ boy buddies back home from the regulations and accountability that everyone else was subject to.
With many of the most aggressively bad legislators gone (or without key placement/leadership positions on relevant committees) in this political season – that threat of political backlash in response to litigation will be diminished – conservationists are likely to be afforded much more headway.
Additionally, with a new administration committed to science and at least somewhat sympathetic to conservation – we can hope for better actors in charge of and throughout the agencies. Before – conservationists would win a lawsuit – and Bush’s BLM (or FS) would to a large degree just ignore it. Now, if we win a lawsuit – we can hope that a new administration will learn from a decision, and to a larger degree make an attempt not to break that same law again.
State lands will largely not be affected – short of ESA. Federal lands are more likely to be affected – but keep in mind, it’s likely that the Obama Administration won’t so much stick it’s neck out to save public lands – as much as it gives those willing the political wiggle room to do it ourselves.
Both the states (on state lands) and the federal government (BLM & FS lands). Ralph covered the state lands – but I’ll make a note that WWP won 3 consecutive Idaho Supreme Court decisions in 1 day with that issue !
Yes. But the process of acquiring standing is difficult. This is why associations exist – a private citizen is more likely to affect change (politically & within the courts) by joining a group that does it professionally as they’ve got the scientists, the lawyers, the know-how & the institutional capability of navigating the bureaucracy and all its technicalities.
No – as much as I agree with such a notion – it’s not likely. And the public is usually considered subservient to the ranchers by the agencies – at least the public’s concern is treated that way now.
feedlots. it’s where they’re at on the off-season anyway. public lands account for only 2% of forage in the industry.
jerry b asks:
It’s state law – so I’m unsure what the laws are for Montana. I think the duration in Idaho is 10 years.
In Idaho it set a precedent for Idaho state law as it was the Idaho State Constitution that governed the ‘bidding’ process to assure best value for school endowment (state) lands.
We should have the new lawyers in Montana look over this – send me an email.
Jon Marvel bid for leases of state land this last year in Wyoming where there is a similar process – though it is obvious that a lawsuit would be necessary. He outbid the others, first with a respectable margin – then when they awarded it to the rancher anyway, he outbid the next leases at a significant margin – same thing. The Land Boards are so “captured” by Livestock it’s unbelievable. I’m not sure whether that’s going to court.
For federal lands or state lands ?
Thanks for any info you can provide.
how many taxes do you suppose ranchers pay on their private land ?
Brian it proabably depends on the state and county where their lands are at, but I would venture a guess of around 50 cents to a 1 dollar an ac. Now granted this also includes sturctures that they have on the property, house, corrells, shops, ect. It is also probably depented upon how the land is classified, unimproved range ground, improved range ground, farm ground, commercial ground, and residental ground. Before they can subdivide and sell lots like they did and are doing in eastern idaho they have to get the ground rezoned for that perticular use.
Ralph, and Debra K, every time I hear that “buying out permits is a short term solution” or ” we’ve had limited success with that option” all I can think is, there are some in the enviromental comunity that thrive off of the conflict and if that conflict is gone then they are out of a job. I think that this is the main reason that there is so little progress being made. What would wwp do if there was no more livestock on public lands? Yes I know they have years of work to do just rehabing the lands that the livestock operators have destroyed. If wwp would spend a fraction of its yearly budget on buying base property, then quitely not running livestock on them I don’t belive anyone would care, but they have to “go yell from the top of the moutain” how they are saving the world from eveil livestock. All this does is cause lots of controversy, and get thier name in the paper, but does it really help with accomplishing their main goal of riding the west of livestock grazing? Ted Turner is one of the largest landowners in the west but we hear so little about him and what he’s doing, guess he really doesn’t care for the press like some others.
Outsider, do you have any idea what WWP’s annual budget is? Its website notes that the 2007 annual budget was $650,000.
Compare that to the cost of 1 base property of several hundred or more acres with permits attached–you’re already well into the 7 figures. Then you have maintenance, taxes, and the other costs associated with owning property to deal with. Iit’s not cost-effective for small, grassroots groups to adopt buying multiple base properties as a way to make meaningful headway. Someone like a Bill Gates would be much better suited to take this approach on. And if a wealthy benefactor were to do it, hooray.
Many of us working on grazing issues wish we didn’t feel compelled to address the grazing abuses we have to witness on a regular basis. I personally have experienced some devastation on public lands and ruination of wildlife habitat that leaves me down for days. Sometimes, I think about moving to Alaska or somewhere else where I wouldn’t have to encounter so much livestock abuse on the public lands, which I’m a part owner of.
The conflict I find to be an unpleasant part of the grazing work. I’d much rather be hiking along a stream or lying in an idyllic meadow–but right now, many of those places look like cattle feedlots. I’m not going to give up the effort to change public lands grazing until there’s reform for the benefit of our wildlife and wild landscapes. But I’d gladly give up the grazing work tomorrow if that reform happens overnight.
This may be out in left field, but maybe we need to start looking at a ‘divide and conquer’ approach. I don’t believe that every member of the state cattlemens, sheepgrowers, or livestock associations graze animals on public lands. Maybe if we stopped lumping all livestock growers together and started making it plain that we don’t have it in for the ranchers et al, but simply want to curtail the abuses of the public land by some of them, we could gain more public support. I believe I read somewhere recently that only 3% of the cattle raised in the US are grazed on public land. I don’t know if that is true, but even if the percentage is 10 to 20%, I don’t believe the US cattle industry is going to collapse if we force that minority to start running only the number of cattle they can graze on their own property. Unless things have changed drastically since I was a child growing up in Southeastern Idaho, the small ranchers outnumber the large operators and none of the small operators I know (including 3 cousins and 2 uncles) run livestock on public land.
I agree that attempting to buy up base land to obtain or control grazing leases is a short term solution at best and probably economically not feasible in large enough quantities to make much of a difference. We need to educate the public. I live and work near Chicago and I gotta tell you, people are shocked when I tell them that they are subsidizing the livestock industry in the form of cheap grazing leases on public lands that they support thru their taxes. To be truthful, most of them aren’t aware that 1. there are large chunks of public land still existing in the western US, and 2. that part of their taxes go to pay for it.
Ranchers who require grazing permits are subsidizing their income, by and large, with other jobs. If they cannpt afford to run cattle on their own land, how much do you really think they contribute to the tax base….no very much. If they did, tax dollars would not be spent subsidizing them.
Furthermore, if you buy base land, you would have other revenues. Additionally, those who ranched would find other work, some place. Orend up on assistance-oh, wait, we already call it “Welfare Ranching”, so not much will change in that aspect. They are already a drain on the tax base…I’d prefer that they drain it without destroying valuable public land.
I know you will disagree, and you are entitled. But, as Brian mentioned, that 2 percent isn’t going to make a huge dent in the cattle market, but them not grazing public land will manke a huge impact on those lands.
I was aware of the 2 %, but it was great to read the rest. Thanks for the input. I appreciate it.
(I took some kids to clean up the Poudre near and in Greeley-the homeless people living there were eye opening, and the kids also saw eagles, fish, and turkeys…it was great. )
Bonnie has hit on the real kicker: very little livestock forage comes from public lands in the west. Ending grazing on public lands would have no real mpact on beef supply or prices in the U.S. It makes no sense to allow this private commercial business to continue devastating public goods like wildlife, clean water and enjoyable recreation.
Individual producers, yes, would feel the pain of losing their cheap taxpayer-subsidized forage. This is why I favor some type of compensation to be made available so ranchers can have options, such as going into another line of business or revamping their operations on private land.
The money-losing, environmentally-damaging activitiy of grazing on public lands needs to be brought to the attention of the Obama administration. He promised to cut gov’t. programs that aren’t working for taxpayers. Surely taxpayer-subsidized grazing on irreplaceable public grounds is Exhibit A to excise!
This is why the ICA is circling its wagons–they know change is in the air.
I think that you are right. Reason would support your ideas. Unfortunately – reason has little to do with natural resource management – despite the best efforts of many.
The percentage of “forage” (conservationists refer to it as “wildlife habitat”) that federal public lands contribute to the livestock industry is around 2% ~ the public land livestock industry is a miniscule interest – even when compared to the American livestock industry as a whole. Yet, this miniscule faction within the industry as a whole dominates natural resource management, wielding disproportionate political influence compared to the greater public interest at large and even disproportionate influence within livestock associations themselves – associations that claim to represent the Livestock industry as a whole and who collect fees from the broader private livestock production constituency.
One would think it would be in private livestock producers interest that their membership fees contributed to livestock associations facilitate a wider scope of advocacy than is the case when these associations appropriate disproportionate resources to maintain public lands for livestock. Additionally, one would think it would be in private livestock producers’ interest to avoid be associated with things like this on public land.
The same case has been suggested with regard to other groups interested in natural resource management – i.e. sportsman & hunting groups. While it is the case that from a rational self-interest perspective, one would reason that sportsmen & hunters have an interest in supporting efforts to restore wildlife & big-game habitat by removing livestock that compete for forage from public lands (livestock outnumber big-game animals on BLM lands by nearly 3 to 1 given (dis)(re)placement/diminished habitat via competition resulting from agencies allocating 96% of available “forage” to livestock ! *[Klyza (1996) and Coggins, Wilkinson, & Leshy (2002)]). Instead, while many hunting groups have admirably kept their advocacy focused on the condition of habitat and have rightly recognized Livestock’s degradation of that resource, oddly enough, for the majority of the most politically enfranchised hunter groups we see the opposite – so-called ‘hunting’ and ‘sportsmen’ groups that are politically aligned with Livestock. Sportsmen for Fish & Wildlife of Idaho is one such example – their ED was natural resource adviser to Senator Larry Craig (one of Livestock’s favorite pets) before the position with SFW-Idaho.
One might suggest that these groups are seizing the free-ride of association given public lands rancher’s “capture” of the political – and feel they have more to gain politically aligning themselves in support of the activity than by pointing out the obvious incompatibility of the two interests – whether they be private ranchers or sportsmen. Others, one might suppose, feel it in their interest to remain silent rather than risk political alienation – or even controversy.
Even conservation organizations are co-opted via the public land livestock issue – especially when in pursuit of political initiatives such as “wilderness” (though it’s not PC to bring this fact up).
However, the times they are a-changin’. Pete Domenici, Larry Craig, Conrad Burns, and many of the other key players in Congress that held significant political power, given their key committee positions and seniority, in large part essential to bolstering the political influence of public lands grazing are falling off the congressional map. Perhaps this is even more significant a change in the political environment than the change of administration. Conservationists can capitalize (literally accrue what is tantamount to administrative ‘political capital’) on the absence of these political saboteurs given they will be in a better position to ‘rationalize’ the bureaucracies in charge of administration of public lands to the benefit of wildlife and wild places. They’ll be on ‘offense’ instead of ‘defense’ to a much larger degree. Without (or with significantly diminished capacity to wield) the threat of political obstruction via rider, appropriation, and other political shenanigans long-held over public interest-groups and agency alike, the effect of and threat of litigation forcing the proper enforcement of already existing environmental laws has the potential to put conservationists in a much better position to negotiate settlement favorable to wildlife and wild places (or the advances made in court, should the administration wish to fight, are more likely to “stick”). That the administration has changed makes the potential for advancement that much more profound given the likelihood of relatively favorable actors on the agency end of those negotiations !
That the ICA is squealing for a fight is right on par with how it’s always been – the potential difference is that their political capacity for politicians to respond at the federal level and carry out that fight seems at this point to be remarkably diminished. It’s ‘All hat‘.
Perhaps this political environment will prove to foster the conditions necessary for private ranchers, sportsmen and hunter groups, and even many conservationists to jettison their association with public lands livestock. I hope so.
Of course – these guys have made a business of defying reason and all rational circumstance.