December 9, 2004
Deal for ranchers - and land
Let's go beyond the ideas mentioned in The Tribune's series 'Change on the
Range.' Let's pay to stop grazing.
By Billy Stern
We all seem to agree: The old ways are not working. Something has to change
on the range. We need new ideas and new opportunities to reduce unchecked urban
sprawl, provide employment opportunities and protect the beautiful landscapes
that make New Mexico the Land of Enchantment.
So here is a radical idea: Save taxpayers money by paying ranchers to remove
their livestock from public land.
Nationwide, ranchers pay about $14 million to lease more than 250 million acres
of national forest and Bureau of Land Management land, but it costs the agencies
more than $100 million annually to manage the program. That doesn't include
millions more spent on stream restoration, water developments, soil conservation
and protecting wildlife threatened by grazing.
It would actually cost less to pay ranchers a fair sum up front than to annually
subsidize the federal grazing program. The Voluntary Grazing Permit Buyout Bills
- HR 3324 and HR 3337 - would do just that. They each have more than 20 co-sponsors
and are supported by hundreds of ranchers and more than 200 local, regional
and national conservation groups.
We applaud the Quivira Coalition for recognizing many of the problems that
confront the Western range and for bringing some new ideas to the table. Forest
Guardians also supports conservation easements and related tax breaks and bringing
tourism and recreation to the ranching communities.
However, these measures alone are not enough. Quivira ignores the widespread
degradation of our rivers and streams and persecution of wolves, coyotes and
prairie dogs that that come with livestock grazing. They also seem to overlook
how their "solution" to sprawl - better management of grazing - includes
dividing the landscape with thousands of miles of fencing and pipelines for
new pastures and water troughs.
Admittedly, ranchers working with Quivira are likely doing less damage to rivers
and streams. But what are the total costs?
At a recent conference, I asked a Quivira member what he thought about the
hundreds of BLM grazing allotments covering millions of acres that go unmonitored.
He shrugged it off, holding to his belief that removing livestock would not
restore these lands - even while admitting that in many places grazing caused
wildlife habitat to become barren and denuded. Improving management on thousands
of acres does not make up for ignoring problems on millions of acres.
Although well-intentioned, the Quivira Coalition and the "radical center"
do the public a disservice by narrowing the solution to two false choices: cows
Attempting to bolster ranching in areas with less than 10 inches of rain annually
is a stopgap measure at best. Small improvements in ranch management will never
be enough to change the financial realities facing the modern rancher.
The truth is that ranching in the arid West has never made sense economically
or ecologically. Now, with gasoline prices rising - the pickup being the new
horse of choice - the threat of mad cow disease, factory farms filled with chickens
and hogs, cheap imported beef and the "return" of drought - actually,
drought is the climatic norm - to the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico, it
is no surprise ranches are failing.
There are reasonable options available for those who are not afraid to let
go of the cowboy mythos. If passed, the voluntary buyout would give public land
ranchers who are ready and willing to permanently retire their federal grazing
allotments approximately $2,000 for each cow they graze annually.
This money would work well in combination with conservation easements and tax
breaks to protect both public and private lands. With money from the voluntary
buyouts, ranchers who truly want to preserve their lands from sprawl could keep
their ranches, pay off their debts and diversify their operations or simply
retire. Meanwhile, removing cattle would allow these areas to recover.
Unfortunately, both the national and New Mexico Cattlegrowers' Associations
oppose the voluntary buyout bills, even though for many of their members the
buyout cash could mean the difference between selling the ranch and keeping
it going on private land with reduced numbers. The voluntary buyout bills provide
a reasonable, fair, market-based, win-win solution.
The question comes down to one of vision and values. Do you want your national
forests and BLM lands filled with cow pies, barbed-wire fences and water troughs
and your streams trodden by cattle and polluted with sediment and E-coli?
Or do you still believe we can have a land where the deer and antelope can
truly roam free, where the mountain streams run clear and cold, filled with
beaver, fish and frogs, and where the sky is full of songbirds dancing with
butterflies amid willows and cottonwoods?
Stern is the grazing reform coordinator for Forest Guardians in Santa Fe.