July 9, 2002 Editorial by WWP Director of Public Information, Keith Raether
Ranching's Historic Decline Should End Public Grazing Time magazine estimates that 328,000 ranchers and farmers will lose their jobs in this decade alone. Phone operators, a distant second on the casualty list, are expected to decline by 60,000.
Despite this forecast, the Idaho Statesman continues to wax delusional in defense of the ranching industry. In a recent editorial, the paper asserts that it is somehow "our" responsibility to commute the fate of an industry whose days of dominion are numbered.
Why? Because ranching "contributes to . . . our Western feel."
The presumption in this clich is absurd. We live in the 21st century, not in the era of Ben Cartwright. The western "feel" that draws people to Idaho or keeps them here has less and less to do with ranching and more and more to do with technology and telecommuting; hiking and biking; hunting, camping and kayaking. Fly-fishing, too, despite the Statesman's gibe.
The West in 2002 isn't defined by ranching; it's scarred by it. The western "feel" of public lands that have long suffered the abuses of ranching is just another word for dewatered streams, endangered species, denuded watersheds and cow pies as far as the eye can see.
The Statesman's solution to ranching's affliction is misguided, if not misleading: "As the ranching industry fights for its survival, it shouldn't be fighting on its own."
The truth, of course, is that it isn't. American taxpayers subsidize public lands ranching in excess of $500 million annually. Is the Statesman suggesting that we sweeten the welfare pot for an industry that's already cashing in its chips?
The American public knows better. We're eating less beef, contributing more to conservation and taking more action against abuses of our public lands.
The demise of ranching is hardly a death knell for rural communities. In Idaho, public lands ranchers account for only one-sixth of 1 percent of all jobs. Their dilemma is no different than that of loggers, miners or dot.comers who've lost their jobs. The future is theirs to see; they just need to look.
Western Watersheds Project and five other conservation groups have proposed a free-market solution that would help greatly in this transition. The National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, endorsed by more than 100 conservation organizations and supported by an increasing number of forward-thinking ranchers, is lobbying Congress to enact a voluntary grazing retirement program for all public lands permittees.
The program would pay federal public lands ranchers more than three times market value if they should choose to relinquish their grazing permits. A permittee with 300 cow/calf pairs that graze public lands for five months of the year would receive $262,000.
Such compensation would allow a rancher to learn a new trade, start a community business, send his kids to college or retire and go fishing. Ranchers win. Conservationists win. And Idaho's natural values return to health.
The Statesman insists Idaho "can't afford to lose its ranching industry."The bottom line of the industry and the streambanks of our public lands indicate otherwise.
They tell all of us that Idaho must look beyond the hummocks and hard times of ranching -- for the "feel" of the West and the good of everyone's kin.
Director of Public Information, Western Watersheds Project
July 11, 2002 Editorial by WWP Board Member, Debra Ellers
With the heated words exchanged between public lands grazing interests and environmental groups, truth can get lost in the rhetoric. My advice to any readers curious about this debate is to explore your public lands, see their condition, learn about the cost to the public (you), and decide for yourself.
When I moved to Idaho in 1985, I was the proverbial blank slate when it came to public lands ranching. I knew zero about the topic, had zero interest in it, and, as the offspring of an agricultural family myself, would have favored the ranchers in theory had anyone asked for my position on public lands grazing.
Like many newcomers to Idaho in the past two decades, I was drawn by the outdoors. On one backpacking trip to Rainbow Lake in the Payette National Forest, north of McCall, I arrived at a trampled muddy wasteland in what was formerly a high alpine lake surrounded by wildflowers. The culprit: dozens of cattle that spent the warm, sunny days standing in the fragile alpine area.
After that, I experienced many similar scenes: cattle manure littering the streambed of Hitt Creek in the Payette National Forest; a cesspool of a stream with many meandering paths that obliterated the official trail, complete with a dead cow, in the Fifth Fork of Third Creek near Twin Falls in the Sawtooth National Forest; cattle trampling the streambed and depositing their manure in Summit Creek east of Ketchum in the Challis National Forest.
I discovered that public lands grazing does much more than ruin recreation. Public lands grazing wastes tax dollars, destroys wildlife and spreads invasive weeds. Public lands grazing is directly responsible for destroying wildlife that ranchers deem undesirable: cougars, wolves, bears, coyotes, prairie dogs and eagles. Tax dollars finance the killing of the public's wildlife by the euphemistically named government agency Wildlife Services.
Barbed wire fencing cuts off wildlife from traditional migration routes and water holes, entraps young animals, and is one of the key factors in the severe decline of the pronghorn numbers. Tax dollars construct troughs, watering holes, fences and other "improvements" for private ranchers' benefit on public lands.
Domestic livestock spread exotic vegetation like cheatgrass and Russian thistles. Lush grasslands were here before livestock grazing brought cheatgrass in the 1880s.
Public lands ranching contributes minimally to the nation's and Idaho's economies. Ranchers often pay lower property taxes than typical residential homeowners. The few jobs public lands ranching generates are seasonal, low-wage work.
Ranchers pay virtually nothing for the forage their livestock eat on public lands and for the destruction they cause. The grazing fee for a cow and a calf per month on federal allotments is $1.43. Only about 3 percent of the nation's beef supply comes from public lands ranching. Private Florida lands grow more cattle than all 11 Western states public lands combined.
Change is a constant in our society. Occupations in this country, such as whaling and slave-trading, had centuries of tradition behind them but became socially unacceptable. We can no longer justify subjecting our public lands to the outdated, destructive use of public lands grazing, which dates back to the unpopulated, frontier days of the West. Unbiased citizens who see the destruction on our public lands and learn the true extent of the subsidies can reach only one conclusion: Public lands grazing must end.