Karl vs. Cows

By Jonathan DuHamel, president, People for the West - Tucson

7/5/02 - Karl Hess, Jr. has a problem with "pampered cows." Under his misapplied guise of free market environmentalism, Hess wants to drastically change grazing practices on federal land in the Western U.S.

So what, you ask? The "what" is that Hess is an advisor to Lynn Scarlett, Undersecretary for the Department of the Interior, and is in a position to influence public policy.

Hess has impressive credentials. He is a senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute (a conservative think tank); he is (or was) a senior associate of the Thoreau Institute; and he is president of The Land Center in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Of late, however, Hess has teamed up with radical preservationist groups such as the National Resources Defense Council, Forest Guardians, the Sky Island Alliance, and The Wildlands Project to write a series of papers against current grazing practices. Even Dave Foreman of EarthFirst! quotes him favorably. In a 1998 paper Hess wrote, "The Wildlands Project is in the envious position of being the first American environmental organization to apply, on a global scale, the principles of conservation biology. Within that global framework, the Sky Island ecosystem is an ideal laboratory to test the ecological underpinnings of conservation biology and to explore the public policy tools needed to make conservation biology a reality on the North American continent."

Do you like living in a laboratory? Is he the kind of person you want guiding natural resource policy?

Throughout his prolific writing there is a common theme. Hess complains that cattle and sheep are the source of degradation of millions of acres of public lands; that almost 200 million acres of federal grass are devoted to producing less than 3.5 percent of the nation's beef; and that government loses money because grazing fees donít cover administrative costs. He also advocates that non-ranchers be allowed to bid on grazing allotments.

Hessís contention that grazing causes degradation is out of date. To encourage settlement of the west, Congress passed the Homestead Act of 1862, which provided for homesteads of 160 acres. Back east, 160 acres could support a family but not in the arid west. Those who tried dry dirt farming soon went bust or converted to stock raising. In Arizona, a single cow-calf unit requires twenty-five to seventy-five acres of natural forage, depending on the terrain. The ranchers had no choice but to run their cattle on open public range.

As more and more homesteads were settled, more cows were grazing the range and he who got there first with the most cattle made money. This practice of common grazing, together with a series of droughts, caused overgrazing and degradation of the range. As a result of this "tragedy of the commons," ranchers petitioned the government to establish "forest reserves" which could not be homesteaded. These reserves eventually turned into National Forests which were mandated to be managed for forage, water and timber production.

Congress was not willing to substantially increase the size of homesteads, so they established a system of grazing "allotments" where a rancher would have exclusive right to forage in a specific area for a specific number of cattle. The rancher had to fence the area and provide water and other infrastructure at his own expense. This practice gave the rancher a strong economic incentive for good stewardship of his allotment. Now, each homestead, the base ranch of fee land, has a number of associated allotments. These allotments are bought, sold, inherited, and taxed along with the ranch, i.e., they are property rights. Currently, when a ranch is purchased, the allotments cost, on average, about $2000 per cow-calf unit, depending on the condition of the range and improvements.

Has modern grazing practice hurt the natural range? Apparently not, since even Bruce Babbitt admitted that our ranges are in better shape now than in the past. In most areas, all the same grasses that were here 300 years ago when the Spaniards first began grazing (more than thirty species of perennial grass in southern Arizona), are still here, along with additional introduced species. One place to observe the effects of grazing is on the Santa Rita Experimental Range (SRER), a tract of 53,159 acres, thirty-five miles south of Tucson. SRER was established in 1903, first as a Forest Service reserve; then in 1988 it was transferred to State Trust Land. It is currently administered by the University of Arizona (see their website at for voluminous data). At SRER, the range is divided into several pastures where various grazing methods are used. Some land has been left ungrazed since 1903. The most verdant and healthy range is that which received pasture rotation, but even the pastures that have been continuously grazed are in better shape that those that have had no cattle at all.

Modern ranching also benefits wildlife and "biodiversity." The case of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in the Altar Valley of southern Arizona is a telling example. The area was lush grassland when private ranchers managed it. After the feds bought out the ranchers to establish a game refuge, they destroyed the manmade water sources to let the land go back to nature. Except nature left. Much of the wildlife migrated to adjacent operating ranches.

It has long been a contention of grazing foes that western grazing produces an insignificant amount of our total beef, and that we could easily get along without federal lands grazing. But the small production percentage is a myth. It just depends how you count. Western ranches generally do not produce cattle for the slaughterhouse. Instead, they raise yearlings to approximately 500 pounds by feeding them natural forage, which is indigestible by humans. The yearlings are then shipped east to Midwest farmersí fields where these "solar energy converters" feed on crop residues and fatten to about 800 pounds. From there they go to feedlots and gain another 300 pounds or so on corn, molasses, and crop residue. These cows get counted at the slaughterhouse and the Midwest farmers get the credit for beef production. In reality, 20 percent of the nationís beef is produced in the west. Ranches in the Arivaca-Altar Valley area of Arizona alone produce nearly two million pounds of beef annually.

Hess complains about a "government subsidy" to ranchers in the form of increased management costs. Whose fault is that? Although past practice of predator control benefitted ranchers at government expense, ranchers do not welcome the ever-increasing bureaucracy with its New Age ecosystem management. However, as government predator control has dwindled, so has the deer population in the Ironwood Monument. Obviously, not only ranchers benefitted from the practice. How would urban and suburban dwellers fare if county animal control ceased to exist? Isnít that a government subsidy too?

Finally, should anyone be able to bid on grazing allotments even if they donít ranch? The problem, of course, is that the rancher canít afford competitive bidding against well-funded anti-ranching activists, and without the allotments, the ranch is no longer economically viable and becomes ripe for sale to developers.

Remembering that allotments are property rights, Arizona rancher Sue Chilton likes to use the analogy of the automobile. You buy and own your car, but you have to pay an annual registration fee. Suppose the registration system went up for bid. Then someone coveting your new Lexus or Ď55 Chevy could offer a higher registration fee for use of your car. Not nice is it? But that is the same thing happening with the property right of ranchersí allotments. There are additional attacks on allotments. Many ranchers have had some or all of their allotments taken or devalued due to overzealous enforcement of the Endangered Species Act and other government regulations.

As Nevada rancher Wayne Hage wrote in response to a Hess article, "The constant attack on Western ranchers, loggers, and miners is an attempt to extinguish private property rights without compensation. Where direct attempts to extinguish these property rights without compensation have been restrained by the courts, extinction through strangling regulations has succeeded to a large degree. Many Westerners have abandoned their property rights in federal land rather than bear the burden and expense of protracted court battles."

Hage adds, "Attacking the citizens of the sparsely populated West makes sense politically. Recent attempts by government to gain control of property rights on the patented lands of the Eastern two-thirds of the country have raised many red flags. Politicians are acutely aware that the current property rights movement in the United States is largely a response to the taking of private property in the urban East through the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and the high-handed tactics of the Environmental Protection Agency and Corps of Engineers. The taking of private lands in heavy population centers gains comparatively little at great political risk. On the other hand, there are only 28,000 ranchers in the West with grazing rights on federal lands. There are comparable numbers of miners and loggers whose property rights are being taken by the regulatory policy of federal agencies and the environmental groups allied with those agencies. At worst, the political risk in attacking the West involves throwing a quarter-million Westerners to the wolves. The gain in wealth for the central government with those rights extinguished is incalculable."

In spite of his impressive credentials, Hess seems to have a blind spot with regard to the facts of ranching and property rights. As the West becomes more urbanized, proponents of the "New West" movement seem to think we should run the place as a recreational park and a dude ranch for city dwellers and Easterners. They seem to forget our basic constitutional principles and traditional values.


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