December 9, 2004

Albuquerque Tribune

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 or condos.

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.