Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West

PART I

This Land Is Your Land

Livestock-free grasslands, Arches National Park, Utah.

The public lands of the United States are a hallmark of our democracy and harbor some of the greatest resources of our nation. Federally managed lands-owned by all Americans-total 623 million acres, or more than 25 percent of the U.S. land base. There are four major federal land agencies-the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), the National Park Service (NPS), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). State agencies and other government departments oversee millions of acres of additional public land.

The vast majority of the federal public lands are in the western United States, where they serve as sources of clean water, recreation, scenic beauty, and inspiration. The public lands are wildlife habitat and in many cases provide the only remaining suitable environments for jeopardized species. On the large blocks of acreage provided by the public lands, restoration and maintenance of landscape-scale ecological processes-such as wildfires-are feasible and desirable. Elsewhere, the prerogatives of commercial enterprise and other human needs usually dominate.

Unfortunately, resource exploitation of various kinds has driven public lands management for many decades. Mining, logging, oil and gas drilling, and even farming have occurred and continue to occur on public lands. But the most widespread commercial use of western public lands is livestock production. Nearly all public lands that have any forage potential for livestock are leased for grazing. This includes 90 percent of BLM lands, 69 percent of USFS lands, and a surprising number of wildlife refuges and national parks. This land-your public land-is frequently managed as if it were a private feedlot rather than the common heritage of all Americans.

Next time you go out to visit your public lands and encounter a fence you must cross, a gate you must open, a campground fouled with cow manure, a trout stream trampled by cows, a hay meadow rather than a natural wetland, weeds instead of native grasses, cattle and sheep instead of prairie dogs, remember, this is your land. Do you like what you see?

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

-Woody Guthrie