Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West

Ranching Myths

MYTH

It's Either Ranching or Subdivisions

TRUTH

Ranch for sale.

Livestock advocates try to silence critics by saying that reducing or eliminating livestock from public lands will lead to subdivisions. Yet, supporting the livestock industry-even increasing its subsidies-will not stop the parceling out of ranchland into housing tracts.

Ranching in the West has always depended on the ready availability of large acreages of land. Western ranchers have competed with stock growers in more productive regions of the country by using more space, and by getting the forage on that land cheaply. However, when land prices rise, western ranchers lose their one advantage. Wetter, milder areas produce more cattle per acre than western rangelands, without as many of the costs and challenges, such as predators, scarcity of water sources, and the need for miles of fencing.

Subdivision is also market driven. But a supply of millions of acres of land for sale (as is the case in the Great Plains) does not alone draw developers. To be attractive to developers, and to eventual buyers of residential lots and homes, land must offer a favorable mix of amenities: proximity to jobs, outdoor recreation, arts and culture, good schools, a pleasant climate, and beautiful scenery. These are the qualities that stimulate subdivision.

Sprawl has gobbled up farmland in California's Central Valley and the Los Angeles Basin, despite the fact that these are some of the most valuable agricultural lands in the world. There is no way marginal ranches and rangelands in the West can compete when a high demand for housing occurs in an area.

The threat of subdivisions needs to be put in perspective. Ultimately, population growth is the problem. In the meantime, livestock production has a physical footprint far greater than urban and suburban areas. In California-the most populous western state-less than 5 percent of the land area is devoted to cities, towns, and subdivisions. Agriculture-farming and ranching-dominates more than 70 percent of the state's acreage. In other western states, the fraction of land occupied by housing and urban/suburban development is even smaller.

Fortunately, there are at least three proven ways to protect open space, wildlife habitat, and other environmental values on private lands: zoning, conservation easements, and outright fee purchase. If the same amount of money we currently throw away on subsidies to the livestock industry were devoted to protecting and buying up wildlife habitat instead, the land would be far better off.