Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West


Ranching Economics and Livestock Subsidies: The True Cost of a Hamburger

Cattle exclosure on Road Creek, Bureau of Land Management lands, Idaho. Most fencing and other developments on public lands are paid for in part, or in full, by taxpayers. These are expenses that, collectively, we would not have to bear if livestock were absent from our lands.

Many people assume, since most of the western landscape is given over to livestock production, that ranching must be economically important. But, as economist Thomas Power points out in the opening essay of this section, the livestock industry contributes almost nothing to western economies, even at the local level.

Despite the cowboy's image as a rugged, independent individual, a host of government subsidies keep him propped up in the saddle. The western rancher is dependent on what is, in essence, a welfare program. The much-publicized low fees paid by ranchers to graze federal lands are only the beginning. Other subsidies include taxpayer-supported research at western land grant universities and agricultural exemptions that lower property taxes paid by ranchers. There are handouts to help with nearly every problem: drought relief, low-interest agricultural loans, emergency livestock feed programs, emergency grazing on Conservation Reserve Program lands, to name a few. Even many of the fences crisscrossing the West's "open" spaces are paid for by American taxpayers.

And this is not all. Ranchers are literally mortgaging the public's resources for their private benefit. As Mark Salvo explains in his essay on the connection between the banking industry and public lands ranching, ranchers are able to take out loans based on the "value" of their grazing permits. This questionable arrangement forces government officials to consider the status of a rancher's debt when making range management decisions, rather than focusing on what is best for the land.

Beyond the economic subsidies are the health, social, and environmental costs of the animal agriculture industry in general-the larger context within which public lands livestock grazing is properly viewed. Ills such as heart disease, cancer, kidney disease, and hypertension may seem quite unrelated to ranching on western public lands, just as food security, loss of arable land, desertification, tropical deforestation, urban overcrowding, and poverty may appear unconnected to problems of ecosystem degradation in the arid West. Yet, all these difficulties are linked-directly or indirectly-to an international system of meat production and an increasingly global pattern of meat consumption. Western ranching is a part of these destructive worldwide trends.

Thus, Virginia Kisch Messina addresses the subject of meat eating and health, while Richard Schwartz and Mollie Matteson discuss the connections between industrialized animal agriculture around the globe and a variety of environmental and social dilemmas. In considering the impacts of public lands ranching, we should understand that these do not occur in isolation from the rest of the country or planet, nor are they disconnected from the most personal and serious aspects of our own lives-our individual health and that of our communities, and the well-being and stability of the world we leave behind for our children.