May 8, 2005

Denver Post

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 rhythm ceases.

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 growing 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.