Red Herring Ranching

Will saving public lands ranching really save open space in the West?

Commentary by Jeff Burgess

You've probably heard this argument lately as the livestock industry's spin doctors have, once again, done a good job. Arizona's new governor even referred to it in her first state of the state address. It goes something like this: We have to help protect ranchers or else they'll be forced to sell and then their land will be developed in to ugly subdivisions.

Public lands ranchers have latched on to this as another excuse to justify the preservation of livestock grazing on our public lands. But closer scrutiny reveals it's just another one of their red herrings.

To begin with, most of a public lands ranch is, typically, made up of thousands of acres of federally owned land. This land, obviously, cannot be developed.

Of course, a federal grazing permittee must also own at least a handful of acres near the public grazing allotment they use. The Feds call this the ranch base property. This land could conceivably be developed.

However, it's unlikely the property owner's decision about developing it will depend upon whether or not they have a grazing permit for the adjacent federal land. The market forces that might be making it tempting to sell will be there either way. And with the continuing human population growth, the pile of money they can make is only going to get bigger.

I say "might" because there are many base properties that have little chance at being developed because they are so small, at the end of a bad road, or lack sufficient water.

Another factor working against the development of a lot of base properties is that their current owners are emotionally attached to them and will make every effort to keep them, irregardless of their opportunity to graze the surrounding public land. In fact, most public lands ranchers don't rely on their livestock operation for their primary source of income.

But, for the sake of argument, let's concede that if a rancher loses their federal grazing permit they will sell their base property. Is that necessarily bad?

Some ranches are certainly pretty but many are eyesores that resemble feed lots or junkyards. A few new houses or condos might be an improvement, especially if the local government has some good zoning laws in place.

Wildlife experts point out that it's not the aesthetics we should worry about, but the loss or fragmentation of wildlife habitat that occurs when a ranch property gets developed. This is certainly a valid concern. Once again, however, it's not a given. I've seen lots of ranches where all of the pastures on the private property around the headquarters were denuded and trampled nearly to death. If this land were converted to residential use, the landscaping put in by the homeowners may actually increase the quantity and quality of habitat.

We need to step back and look at the bigger picture too. If grazing is phased out on a typical 30,000 acre public lands grazing allotment, the resultant improvement in the quality of the wildlife habitat on that large area can more than offset the loss of habitat on the 40 acres of ranch base property that gets developed.

I know more people can create new environmental problems, like increased road traffic and feral dogs. But it's a safe bet the people that move in to the new residences will be more interested in seeing the surrounding public lands managed for wildlife and recreation than were the ranch owners.

I'm not saying that keeping a public lands rancher in business is never in the public's interest. There are always exceptions. In general, however, protecting public lands ranching is not a policy that will ensure the preservation of open space in the West.