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End Commercial Grazing on Federal Public Land -- An Argument

by: Todd Shuman
March, 2001

What extractive land use threatens 22% of all remaining endangered species (and 33 percent of all endangered plant species) in the US? Domestic livestock grazing (source: BioScience, Aug. 1, 1998, Vol. 48, No. 8, Wilcove, et.al.). What land use activity has reduced the biodiversity and productivity of Arizona and New Mexico wilderness ecosystems to 20 percent of their potential? Domestic livestock grazing (source: Twiss et al, USDA Forest Service, Wilderness Management Activity Review - Southwestern region. June 24-30, 1995 15pp. 1995). Which taxpayer-subsidized land use activity generates 0.06% of the jobs and 0.04% of the income of the 11 major Western states, as well as 3.8 percent of the total U. S. beef supply? You said it: livestock grazing on federal public lands (sources: Power, Thomas Michael. 1996. Lost Landscapes and Failed Economies: The Search for a Value of Place. Washington: Island Press, 303 pages, Table 8-2 and San Jose Mercury News, Nov 7, 1999, p. 2S of "Cash Cows reprint)(ed. note: the online version of Cash Cows differs somewhat in layout from the "reprint"). Why does this federal land use activity, which should have been terminated years ago, continue at all?

As the text above indicates, the current system of federal public lands grazing in the US damages valuable public resources and prevents the environmental restoration of most of our publicly-owned rangeland. The key source of these problems, which cannot be remedied with incrementalist tinkering, is the interrelation of rural private land values with grazing permits. Such permits currently constitute "preferences", or privileges that are considered by the IRS and the private real estate market as informally-recognized "rights" to graze public lands. These informal rights are attached to a base property and usually are detached only when the terms and conditions of a permit are frequently violated. Because many privately-held rural real estate values are pumped up by, and predicated upon, the possesion of public lands grazing permits, any government-proposed livestock number cuts or significantly shortened grazing seasons (designed to promote ecological restoration) inevitably raise the spectre of decreasing base property values and the consequent loss of collateral value needed to secure loans. When such proposals surface, the ranchers and their banker allies promptly become outraged and enlist the Domenicis, Craigs, Chenoweths, Pombos, and Doolittles (right wing Congress members whom they sponsored and elected into office in the first place) to terrorize the agencies into backing off. As a result, the public rarely hears of the federal government instituting very short grazing seasons, biannual resting of meadows, reduced stocking rates, restrictive stream disturbance rate standards, 20 percent utilization rates, or rigorous enforcement actions when permit terms are violated.

A "No Commercial Grazing On Public Lands" policy would be superior to the Sierra Club's existing policy on a number of fronts. Though the current policy does place an emphasis on reducing grazing in areas that receive less than 12 inches of precipitation, it tends to ignore wetter areas that also need protection. For instance, forested areas are not enhanced by domestic livestock grazing -- indeed, domestic livestock grazing helped promote last year's wave of catastrophic fires throughout the west. Domestic livestock grazing in higher elevation montane environments also tends to degrade watersheds and native fisheries. It often deprives mule deer of habitat, damages willow-dependent bird populations, drives out native sedges, and promotes meadow ecosystems dominated by grazing-tolerant plants. Medium elevation oak woodlands have declined spatially, as oak regeneration has been prevented, in part, by domestic livestock grazing.

Moreover, current Sierra Club policy fails to emphasize that the grazing of damaged non-arid public land should be eliminated. This is no trivial oversight -- there is plenty of such grazing-damaged non-arid land out there. The Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment DEIS just documented that over 50 percent of the meadows located in grazing allotments in the Sierra Nevada national forests were in "fair" or "poor" condition. In some of these national forests, such as the Humbolt-Toiyabe, Inyo, and Stanislaus, the values ranged from 70 to 90 percent in these two categories (Chpt 3-520). As for BLM lands, the San Jose Mercury News discovered in late 1999 that 46 percent of the BLM parcels rented by the 20 largest BLM permit holders were classified as unsatisfactory ("'improve' -- unsatisfactory conditions in sensitive areas." (Nov 7, 1999, p. 1S, 3S of "Cash Cows reprint). The Mercury article also noted that only 36 percent of BLM streams were classified as in "proper functioning condition" in 1998. (Nov 7, 1999, p. 3S of "Cash Cows reprint). Should the no grazing resolution become Sierra Club policy, it would speak firmly and unambiguously concerning this key point: land damaged by cattle or sheep should no longer be subjected to the adverse impacts generated by domestic livestock, regardless of how much precipitation the area receives.

To conclude, we must mobilize a great deal of social power to force a change
in the politics of the public lands grazing debate. To do that, we must first get people's attention. "No Commercial Grazing On Public Lands" will do that, and it will also constitute the strong initial bargaining position that will be needed to extract significant concessions from the federal government and the rancher/banker/corporate meat packer alliance. "End Commercial Grazing" will allow us to generate some legislative vehicles through which we can further educate and mobilize Club members on behalf of such an effort. Such a policy will also help us to promote the formation of a broad-based coalition dedicated to ending the regime of public lands grazing. A coalition that includes Sierra Club members, anglers, hunters, birdwatchers, hikers, fiscal conservatives, advocates of animal rights and animal welfare, and advocates of public health would likely affect the politics of federal public lands grazing, allowing the federal government to implement more restrictive livestock management policies on public lands in the future.

Some claim that implementing a no grazing law would lead to additional fences on public lands in the west that would, in turn, harm wildlife. I believe that this claim is unfounded. First, cattle that trespass on unfenced public land could simply be impounded by federal authorities. While checkerboard areas (interspersed areas of small public and privately-held lands) in the western US may pose some problems concerning fences (perhaps requiring land trades, acquisitions of adjacent smaller private land plots, or an extended transition period to remove cattle from the adjacent public land plots), most of the other larger public land allotment plots could have fences removed with much benefit to wildlife and recreation. As Reed Noss, in the March/April 2000 Sierra Magazine (see #3 at this link) says, "Removing cattle and the accouterments (sic) of the livestock industry -- fences and roads, in particular -- would do wonders for these lands" (p. 59)