Owyhee Canyonlands and Livestock Economics

I attended a legislative hearing in Salem on proposed wilderness and/or national monument status for the Owyhee Canyonlands. While my motivation for protecting land has little to do with economic growth, the major rationale given for opposing increased land protections is that it will harm the local economy, particularly the livestock industry. But the reality is that land protection generally creates a more diverse and interesting economy, and in some ways, with less direct degradation of the land as with ranching.

Numerous opponents of any increased safeguards asserted that ranching would be jeopardized by increased protective measures and would have dire consequences for Malheur County since ranching, they declared, was a “major” industry.

Notwithstanding, the fact that wilderness and/or national monument designation does not preclude livestock grazing, the implied message was that wilderness and/or national monument creation would hurt Malheur County’s ranching industry, and thus Malheur County’s economic prospects.

Despite claims that ranching is a “major” industry, livestock and farming combined, only provide 6% of the county’s personal income. While non-farm income is responsible for 94% of the county’s personal income.

Indeed, only 2039 jobs (2011) of the county’s employment were farm/ranch-related. Worse for Ag boosters, from 1970 to 2011 in Malheur County, farm and ranch employment, experienced a 40% decline. So counting on Ag to provide for the county’s future economic growth is certainly questionable.

However, there is even more to consider. Farm and ranch jobs, on average paid far less than the county average. So even if this long-term trend of industry decline were to reverse, it would not provide much new economic wealth to county residents.

By contrast, non-farm employment in the service industry would likely see a boost if a major new national monument or wilderness area were established in the county.

Numerous studies show that county with protected lands tend to have higher incomes, more rapid job growth, and a greater influx of new businesses. Why? Because people like to live near protected lands.

Better yet, many of these non-farm jobs are not directly dependent on taxpayer welfare. Ranchers get massive subsidies from the federal and state government. Everything from below cost grazing fees on public lands, to subsidized water irrigation projects, to many other programs like emergency livestock feed, livestock forage disaster program, and other indirect and direct payments.

According to the Environmental Working Group database, Malheur County is the number one county in Oregon for federal livestock subsidies! So at least some of that 6% of county income attributed to Ag is a direct result of welfare provided by the rest of the taxpayers of this country. If federal subsidies were eliminated, the contribution by Ag to county income would drop substantially.

In terms of economic development, one of the best business incubators around is to designate protected lands. The future economic growth in the county is not in beef or other farm commodity production—despite wishful thinking on the part of livestock advocates.

It’s time for Malheur County residents to stop looking in the rear view mirror and begin to embrace a new paradigm. In today’s economy, protection of land is one of the best ways to stimulate new economic opportunities.






  1. KyleG Avatar

    Excellent George! The future of Western communities lies in protecting what remains of wild lands, not in continuing to support extractive industries. A contribution of six percent to the local economy is likely much less considering beef industry subsidies and the externalities of grazing.

    Most people (including locals) can see this, and the evidence for economic benefits related to conservation are well documented (see Thomas Michael Power for example). Now can we unshackle the political process of excessive dead-weight thinking and move into a new era? People from around the world don’t visit the West to see mine waste, over-grazed landscapes, oil and gas rigs, or acres of stumps. Time to drop the rear-view perspective of what constitutes well-being.

  2. Brett Haverstick Avatar
    Brett Haverstick

    I enjoyed reading this George. It will ve very interesting to see if the Obama Administration designates a national monument in southwest Oregon. I’d be happy to spend my money and visit the place if it were.

  3. Brett Haverstick Avatar
    Brett Haverstick

    Woops mean to say southeast Oregon. I also left out that an article in the AP spoke to the threats the oil and gas industry poses to the Owyhees. Permanent protections of this landscape is a win-win for the ecosystem and the economy.

  4. don smith Avatar
    don smith

    The problem with studies that claim that protected areas result in economic growth is that they confuse correlation with causation. What drives local population growth and economic development are a great deal more complicated.

    Should Oregon’s side of the Owyhee be made a monument (and I hope it is), I wouldn’t expect those with higher income to move to Rome or Jordan Valley to start up new businesses, thus boosting the local economies.

  5. Chris Harbin Avatar
    Chris Harbin

    Thanks George that was good (and well-documented) read. It’s sad that people are so resistant to change – even small, incremental changes. So scared, in fact, that many people will even vote against their own self-interest in order to avoid change. Of course with all the political fear-mongering, sensationalized news, increasing income disparity and a poor educational system it is easy to see why.
    I hope they are able to improve the conservation status of the Owyhee Canyonlands.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner