Point-Counterpoint: Cows versus Condos

Ed Marston, Senior Journalist for High Country News, recently reviewed Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West, in which he criticized voluntary grazing permit buyout claiming it would expose private base properties to development. George Wuerthner, co-editor of Welfare Ranching and Ecological Advisor to the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, responds.

From High Country News, 12/9/02:

Cow-free crowd ignores science, sprawl

by Ed Marston

The West is tiny when pitted against our imagining of it. We imagined the buffalo would never be extinguished and the beaver would never be trapped out. We imagined big trees would always stand over the next ridge.

But in a short time, the mountain men and buffalo hunters and loggers rolled over this alleged vastness.

Now comes a new group of dreamers: the cattle-free movement. It believes sprawl can never conquer the West's million square miles.

The flagship of this movement is a gorgeous coffee-table book, Welfare Ranching, edited by George Wuerthner and Mollie Matteson. The book is filled with essays by various writers, including the late Ed Abbey, but its heart is photo after photo of devastated grassland: gullies and washes that were once narrow and vegetation-lined streams; eroding and slumping hillsides; cobbled and bare land that was once grass-covered.

There's a lot of land to take photos of: Eighty-five percent of the federal land managed by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management is grazed. That's 406,000 square miles. Another estimated 170,000 square miles of private rangeland is attached to the public grazing lands. Together, 21,000 public-land ranchers use 576,000 square miles of land.

As this land goes, so will go the 1 million-square-mile West.

This land is going somewhere. Ranchers have been on short rations and hard times since the beginnings of the Anglo West, but never more so than now. They are an aging group, and about half of the public-land ranchers work off the ranch. If they don't come to ranching with a fortune, they usually just squeeze by.

For some, it's the only life they know. But most stick to it because it's a job that is also their play. That is part of what brings them into such fierce conflict with their fellow recreationists: the cattle-free people.

The conflict is bitter. Welfare Ranching may be filled with photos of scraped land, but the cover photo is of a healthy-looking grass-sage meadow, with an overweight rancher riding a four-wheeler away from a herd of cows. A photo of unattractive land has been foregone to show an unattractive person. All is fair in love and class warfare.

The cattle-free movement is small but fierce. Among those pitted against it are reformers, some of whom are ranchers, like the Malpai Borderlands Group, which want its industry to change, and some of whom are environmentalists, like The Nature Conservancy, which believes ranching is better for habitat and wildlife than development.

Welfare Ranching takes on the reformers by showing a few spectacular photos of beat-up Nature Conservancy and Malpai land. TNC and Malpai say the photos are miscaptioned. But correctly labeled or not, photos don't tell much. A denuded stream in the book may be in recovery, or may be getting worse, or may have been created last week by a 100-year flood. The land is complex, changeable, hard to read. A photo series over years, combined with vegetative surveys, tells something. Welfare Ranching's photos are anecdotes - telling stories but not giving a complete picture.

But based largely on photos, the book maintains that no time should be lost in removing livestock from the public's land. Once the cows are gone, the book and the associated cattle-free movement argue, the vegetation and wildlife will come back. The land will "rewild."

The book's essayists are able to believe in "rewilding" because they maintain a tight focus. These romantics don't worry about what other interests might move onto the public land once ranchers are gone. They ignore the fact that ranchers are often environmentalists' only allies in the fight against coal bed methane and off-road vehicles.

Nor do the authors worry about science. They do not cite the only major study that has assessed the health of the West's grazed public land as a whole. In the early 1990s, a scientific panel set up by the National Academy of Sciences surveyed the literature and in 1994 reported that it was impossible to determine whether the range was stable, deteriorating or improving. The studies simply do not exist.

Nor does the book cite the studies that show recreation is more harmful than ranching. Even hiking trails drive off neotropical birds and other sensitive wildlife, leaving us with cowbirds and jays and deer. Recreation creates more threatened and endangered species than ranching.

Finally, the writers do not mention the tide of ecological reform that is moving through the public-land ranching community.

One reason for the single-mindedness of the cattle-free movement is the personal bitterness created by history. For a century, ranchers and the West's elected officials ran the federal lands as if they were privately owned, located in a separate nation called The West. When new people came West, they denied us our rights as citizens. And they used their political power to subvert the laws that should have protected the health of the land. Relicts of that lawless era are not hard to find.

Grazing foe Jon Marvel's Western Watersheds Project just won a legal case against public-land ranchers in Idaho's spectacular Owyhee country, southwest of Boise. The BLM had never required that some of those ranchers even have permits. When environmentalists challenged this, the agency handed out permits as if they were library cards.

Given this sorry history, why should the rest of us care if 21,000 families are bought out or forced off the public land?

We have 170,000 reasons to care. That is the square miles of private land - roughly Utah and Idaho put together - that may become useless as ranchland if cows are forced off the public land. This land was chosen by homesteaders because it has the deepest soils and the most water and biodiversity. It is winter range for wildlife and open space for communities. The land they didn't homestead - what is now the public land - is thin-soiled, high-elevation, arid. Undeveloped private ranchland is what keeps the West from becoming New Jersey with bumps.

Welfare Ranching rejects this argument. It argues that while cows vs. condos may be valid close to metro areas, it is invalid in most of the vast West.

Unfortunately, no matter what the location, once private ranchers have been shorn of their federal grazing allotments, someone will be willing to pay more for their private land than the ranchers can pay to graze cows. Close to urban areas, the buyer may be a subdivider. Farther out, the demand will be for 10-acre ranchettes. And way out, it will be someone looking for 40 acres for a trailer, outbuildings and sheds.

Think of the demand for land. Arizona's population grew in the 1990s by 40 percent, Colorado's and Utah's by 30 percent, and New Mexico's by 20 percent. Land use grew faster. From 1960 to 1990, Colorado's population grew at 3 percent a year, but developed land increased 8 percent. In Idaho, the figures were 1.9 percent and 7.8 percent. Like galaxies in the outer reaches of our universe, sprawl is accelerating.

None of this complexity is in Welfare Ranching. The book simply argues, argues simply, that ranchers are eager to sell, and so they are no protection against sprawl.

That is true. Sprawl can't be stopped by ranchers alone. The protection of wide-open spaces is a job for all of us, from federal-land managers to fire experts to rural planning commissions to land trusts. And finally, it's also up to the cattle-free people, who must become reformers and cooperators and realists before it is too late for the West.

Condos or Cows? Neither!

by George Wuerthner


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. Raising cattle in the West involves more than grazing grass, and the environmental impacts are countless and cumulative.

Second, livestock proponents ignore the vast differences in the phsical, geographical footprint between development and livestock production. Livestock production affects nearly all of the non-forested landscape in the West in one way 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 grazing as the only viable alternative to full-scale development..


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.


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 land uses and activities that carry tremendous ecological costs. Livestock spread weeds, fragment wildlife habitat (particularly aquatic ecosystems because of water diversions for crop and pasture irrigation), transmit diseases to wildlife, steal forage from native herbivores, trample soils, pollute surface water, degrade riparian areas and truncate nutrient flows.

The cumulative impact of livestock production in 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 use 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.


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 United States. This figure includes public and private lands that are grazed, and farmland used to grow forage crops.

Western states mirror the national patterns of agricultural and urban land use. 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 15,722,500 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. Crop fields fragment and degrade more terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems than all urbanization and sprawl.

Open space is not the same as good 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, there are vast areas 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" (agricultural fields and range) 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.


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, land grabs that ranching cannot 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 landowners 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 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.


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, the West will be a better place than it is today, even as more people discover its wonders and desire to live there.