Jonathan DuHamel, president, People for the West - Tucson
- 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.
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.
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."
you like living in a laboratory? Is he the kind of person you want
guiding natural resource policy?
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
contention that grazing causes degradation is out of date.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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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."
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."
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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