Cows or Condos? Neither!

"The market in "Wyotana" has been simmering steadily for 20 years.... [I]n 1981, the 11,500-acre Forbes family ranch was sold to the Church Universal and Triumphant for $7 million. That price ... was roughly 10 times what the land was worth based on how much livestock it could support, a measure that is going the way of grazing land. By the mid-80's, the Wyoming/Montana market really began to take off, with increasing numbers of people eager to buy land adjacent to Yellowstone. 'Basically, people started to pay for view, for fish, for wildlife and access to more desirable towns,' [says a real estate agent]. 'That's what pushed the market.'" Anna Bahney, Wyotana: Home of the Second Home. The New York Times (Jan. 17, 2003).

Public lands grazing apologists oppose retiring grazing on federal public lands because it supposedly makes associated private lands more susceptible to development. However, where development pressure exists in the West (as described in the New York Times article quoted above), the public cannot expect that, in a declining domestic beef market and amid skyrocketing real estate prices, public lands graziers will hold the line against encroaching subdivisions by choosing to continue operating their private/public lands ranches rather than sell to developers. Indeed, ranchers recently opposed new rangeland development restrictions promulgated by Carbon County in southwest Wyoming. These ranchers--whom apologists hold up as guardians of the West--argued that subdevelopment was both their right and an economic necessity.

Rather than rely on "coincidental conservation" (i.e., ranchers who simply choose not to subdivide their base properties), the public should pursue "contractual conservation" to preserve private lands--focused, conditioned subsidies; conservation easements; and fee simple aquisition of private properties to prevent their development. Stein, T. Desperation leads to preservation: a Wet Mountain Valley rancher who stood to lose the family land cuts a conservation deal to save it and finds himself at the movement's forefront. Denver Post (June 1, 2005). The solution to sprawl also includes voluntary federal grazing permit buyout.

Four out of five western ranchers have no federal grazing permits, so those who are relying on the continued subsidization of public lands grazing as their primary strategy to prevent sprawl are ignoring four-fifths of the problem.

Federal public lands grazing permittees are an aging lot. Most federal grazing permits (and base properties) will change hands over the next few decades. These permits are likely to be inherited by offspring who left the ranch 40 years prior and do not desire to come home to ranch. Subsequently, whatever conservation benefits that do/did exist because a given landowner preferred the ranching lifestyle over profits from development will be lost upon a change in ownership when the new owner decides to take the cash, not the lifestyle.

Rather than continue paying passive, unfocused and unconditioned grazing subsidies on public lands and hoping ranchers won't decide to sell to developers, the public should offer to retire their grazing permits and purchase the private base properties from willing permittee-sellers. How to pay for it? Well, $500 million of federal funding annually would be available if taxpayers weren't subsidizing the federal grazing program.

Resources

NPLGC, Cows or Condos: A False Choice

George Wuerthner, Cows or Condos: A False Choice Between Public Lands Ranching and Sprawl. Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West

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.

The Importance of Federal Grazing Allotments to Central Sierran Oak Woodland Permittees
A 2002 study found that federal grazing permittees that ranch in the Central Sierran oak woodlands in California would respond to reductions in their Forest Service grazing permits by (in order): (1) seeking replacement forage on other private or public lands; (2) reducing their livestock herds to match the reduced forage; (3) ceasing ranching (and potentially selling (part of) their base property for development); and (4) diversifying their ranch operations to earn additional income. One rancher interviewed for the study indicated that a difficulty with diversifying his ranch operation would be that it required a large capital outlay; a large amount of cash would be available to him if federal voluntary grazing permit buyout legislation is passed in Congress. It is intriguing that a few ranchers believed they could make more money without grazing their public lands grazing allotment.

Commentary: A New Economy and Land Uses in the West

Excerpted from Atlantic Monthly, Jan/Feb 2003:

The New Continental Divide

Overcrowded cities on the coasts. Dying rural communities in the interior. The way to save both may be to create a post-agrarian heartland

Michael Lind

. . . Today only about six percent of America's land is residential (urban, suburban, and rural). About 20 percent is farmland, another 25 percent is rangeland, and the rest is wilderness and woodland. The United States grows far more food today than it did in 1954, on about three quarters the acreage. Since 1950, even as agricultural production has increased by more than 100 percent, land has been taken out of agriculture eight times as fast as it has been consumed by suburban development. Much of that abandoned farmland has gone back to forest, particularly in the Northeast. In the twenty-first century most of the land that is liberated from unnecessary agriculture can continue to be restored to wilderness, prairie, forest, or desert, even if a significant portion is reserved for new, low-density housing for migrants from the crowded coastal states.

The federal government subsidizes many farms and ranches that should have been shut down long ago. At best, farm subsidies provide life support for comatose communities. The government is planning to spend at least $171 billion on direct farm subsidies alone over the coming decade. In much of the continental interior this money would be better used to promote a combination of service and manufacturing industries, as part of an ambitious economic-development program for the region.

Washington should also phase out the roughly $2 billion in annual irrigation subsidies to western agribusinesses, of which almost half is used for surplus crops. Subsidized irrigation is rapidly depleting the High Plains aquifer under Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Nebraska, which now provides about 30 percent of the groundwater used in the United States. The experiment with agriculture in the semi-arid Great Plains from the late nineteenth century onward was a mistake; it produced the Dust Bowl during the Depression and today's regional demographic decline. Cutting off such subsidies would not only end the western water wars but also drive agriculture eastward to states like Illinois and Iowa, where water is abundant and renewable. Within those states market pricing for water would encourage crop diversification and technological innovation in agriculture. Residential and industrial use, not agricultural use, should be the priority of water policy in the Great Plains and the desert and Mountain West, including major portions of California and Texas. And diverting water from agriculture to industry has the potential to generate far more jobs: according to the U.S. Geological Survey, for example, the same amount of water that supports a sixty-acre alfalfa farm with only two workers could support a semiconductor factory with 2,000 workers.

The money saved by reducing direct and indirect agricultural subsidies could help to pay for a new high-tech infrastructure in the American heartland. All too many rural areas lack, for example, high-speed broadband access. The federal government, which subsidized the railroad in the nineteenth century and the electric-power grid and interstate highways in the twentieth, needs to build a transcontinental infrastructure once again. A hydrogen-based transportation system might be constructed from nothing in many rural areas, which would be spared the transition costs necessary in developed regions. And the government could encourage an air-taxi system, such as James Fallows has proposed in this magazine (see "Freedom of the Skies," June 2001 Atlantic), in which thousands of small regional airports would supplement our major hubs, potentially turning dying small towns into new centers of commerce and culture. An "interstate-skyway system" might be to America in the twenty-first century what the interstate-highway system was in the twentieth.

. . . In a second inland movement, wired professionals and well-paid service workers might make new lives in wide-open spaces that are slowly reverting from monotonous expanses of wheat and corn to wilderness. The first wave of heartland settlement was in the long-term perspective a failure, with consequences that are evident today. The high-tech pioneers of the twenty-first century, unlike their agrarian predecessors, may be able to reconcile the myth of the heartland with the American dream.