May 8, 2005
Writers on the Range
Change threatens a Rockies rite of spring
By Paul Larmer
It's springtime in the Rockies, which means roiling rivers, blooming fruit
orchards and lots of baby bovines in the valley-bottom pastures.
A month ago, the calves were small, dark lumps on dun-colored fields; today,
they are energetic youngsters chasing one another across green grass. In a
few weeks, most of the cow-calf pairs will head to the public lands, where
they will fatten up on mountain grasses.
The migration of livestock from valley pastures to mountain meadows, from
private lands to public, and back again, has been a tradition in the West
for more than a century. It's hard to imagine the day could come when this
Yet, more and more people are imagining that day, and in some places
bringing it closer. Difficult economics and increasing conflicts with other
public-lands users - off-roaders, mountain bikers, hikers and the like -
have convinced a small but growing number of ranchers to give up their
grazing permits for one-time buyout checks.
Over the past decade, in places like Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante
National Monument, Oregon's Steens Mountain and Arizona's Grand
Canyon-Parashant National Monument, ranchers have accepted hundreds of
thousands of dollars to take their cows permanently off lands with high
ecological and recreational values.
Whether this trickle of buyouts ever turns into a larger flood depends
largely on money. A group of environmental organizations, flying under the
banner of the Public Lands Grazing Campaign, is pushing legislation that
would authorize the federal government to fund buyouts across the West. But
the prospects of this Congress and president approving it are dimmer than
dim. Local bills - such as one authorizing buyout of grazing permits held by
a few Idaho ranchers in a proposed wilderness area - are more likely to pass
and be funded.
The ranchers' best hope for getting a "golden saddle" lies in the
number of conservation groups and private funders who want to see fewer
cattle on the range. Today, at least a half-dozen groups, including the
Grand Canyon Trust, the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep Association, the
National Wildlife Federation, the Conservation Fund, and the Oregon Natural
Desert Association, have buyout programs. The Conservation Fund alone has
purchased grazing permits covering 2.5 million acres over the last 10 years.
Of course, there are people on both sides of the fence who oppose the buyout movement.
Some environmentalists don't want ranchers to get a penny for grazing permits
that, according to federal law, are not a formal property right. But this stance
has softened. Andy Kerr, who once flung lawsuits at the Forest Service to stop
old-growth logging and now heads the grazing campaign, says most environmentalists
now acknowledge that ranchers' permits have always had tangible monetary value.
Permits increase the value of privately held properties and can be borrowed against.
Though rancher interest in voluntary buyouts is increasing, most of the organizations
that represent them oppose buyouts on the grounds that they will kill the West's
ranching culture. But that's an overstatement. Buyouts will be most attractive
to ranching operations that have never made sense, economically or ecologically.
Ranchers who have figured out how to make a profit while maintaining the health
of the land will stay on the public lands.
Even ranchers who accept buyout checks don't have to get out of the
business. They can reinvest in their livestock operations by purchasing
private land, or they can start new businesses that better fit the region's
rapidly evolving economy. In either case, the rural West benefits.
And so does the land. Buyouts can relieve pressure on ecosystems grazed too
hard for too long and give a boost to wild species that are highly valued by
society, yet can't survive cows. There is no reason why ranchers struggling
to make a go of it in prime grizzly habitat, or in the path of bison
migrating out of Yellowstone National Park, or along a desert stream that
provides critical habitat for endangered songbirds, shouldn't be given a
generous check to permanently move their cows to greener pastures.
In the years ahead, the rhythm of public-land ranching may beat a little
less loudly. But in return, the wild heart of the West will grow stronger.