Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West

Ranching Myths

MYTH

Ranching Is the Foundation of Rural Economies

TRUTH

Cows in stream, southern Arizona.

Many livestock supporters attempt to portray public lands livestock production as an essential element of rural economies. It's easy to see the fallacy in this argument if you think about the numbers involved. For example, in Nevada there are fewer than 800 public lands grazing permittees. And in the entire state less than 2,000 people are engaged full-time as farmers or ranchers. One casino in Las Vegas employs more people than work in agriculture in all of Nevada. Although other states may have higher numbers of people involved in ranching, livestock production is proportionally a small part of the economic picture in all western states.

Ranching and associated activities provide very few jobs. Furthermore, most ranch operations, except the very biggest, are not highly profitable. Both of these truths help explain the rather interesting finding of one University of Arizona study: that instead of rural towns being dependent on the livestock industry for their economic survival, the reverse was true. Ranch families depend on nearby towns and cities to provide full- or part-time jobs that help keep the ranch financially afloat. Without family income from such positions as schoolteachers, local civil servants, store clerks, salespeople, and so forth, ranch ownership would be impossible. The vast majority of people who call themselves ranchers enjoy the lifestyle and the prestige, but they are not choosing a lucrative pursuit (as indeed many will complain!). Therefore, it can be argued that, financially, rural towns would likely survive without ranchers, but most ranchers would be hard-pressed to survive without the towns.

As ranching is relatively unimportant in local economies, it is even less important on state and regional scales. According to the Department of the Interior's 1994 Rangeland Reform Environmental Impact Statement, the elimination of all public lands livestock grazing would result in a loss of 18,300 jobs in agriculture and related industries across the entire West, or approximately 0.1 percent of the West's total employment. Natural resource economist Thomas Power has calculated that all ranching in the West, on both public and private lands, accounts for less than 0.5 percent of all income received by western residents.