Watersheds Messenger     Spring 2002     Vol. IX, No. 1     PDF ISSUE


Public Lands Ranching: Welfare State in the West
By George Wuerthner

Despite the multiple ecological impacts associated with livestock production on public rangelands, livestock grazing continues on these lands, in part, because of the public perception that ranching is essential to the West's economies.

People are reluctant to criticize, much less terminate an economic activity that they perceive as critical to their own local economic interests. Yet, the overall economic importance of the livestock industry, particularly the part dependent upon public lands, is insignificant to all but the individual rancher. Indeed, even in most rural communities, government, services and transfer payments (retirement, royalties and investments) account for the vast majority of all income sources.

For the West as a whole-which is primarily urban-the dependency on agriculture, particularly ranching, is even less significant. Yet the myth that the West's economic backbone lies in ranching, particularly in rural areas, is perpetuated by the livestock industry to maintain political control, power and subsidies for a small subset of society: the West's welfare ranchers.

Furthermore, the ranchers themselves continuously reinforce this false sense of economic benefit, asserting that they are the backbone of the regional economy. This perception is echoed mindlessly by many publicly supported institutions such as Agricultural Extension Services, universities and public lands managing agencies. Politicians (often ranchers) along with the media and even some environmental organizations are also culpable for this distortion as well, continuously exaggerating the overall economic value of livestock production and thereby helping to maintain the political and economic hegemony enjoyed by the West's welfare ranchers.

While there are hundreds of millions of acres devoted to growing cows, the amount of employment, income and economic activity that results is nearly insignificant. And since this activity is anything but benign, it often occurs at the expense of other western resources such as fisheries, wildlife, watersheds, recreation, scenery, biodiversity and ecological processes - all of which have tremendous economic value well beyond the tiny contribution made by the livestock industry. Indeed, as University of Montana professor of economics Thomas Power argues, in the changing West of today, these quality-of-life resources are the engines driving modem economic activity.

There are several ploys used by livestock advocates to distort the value of public lands ranching to the West's economy. One method used to overstate the importance of public lands to the West's ranching industry is to count the total number of animals that graze on public lands, no matter how short a period of time, rather than the amount of forage contributed by those lands. Thus if a cow grazes on federal lands for even one day, it is counted as a public lands-dependent grazing animal - even though the contribution of public lands forage to the annual production is small.

Often overlooked is the fact that even in the West, a substantial number of livestock (70 percent) are grazed exclusively on private lands most or all of the year. For example, only 10 percent of the forage for livestock in Montana, a state that possesses one of largest cattle industries in the West, is derived from public lands.

Most western ranching operations are not economically viable now and should be more properly be considered "hobby" ranches.

Since economic viability isn't the reason most ranchers engage in livestock operations, a loss in public lands grazing privileges would not necessarily lead to the widespread abandonment of ranching in the West. Most ranchers engage in livestock production because it is a "lifestyle" choice. As a consequence, the overall number of western livestock operations that would be permanently put out of business by the closure of all federal lands grazing allotments is far less than the total number of western public lands livestock producers or even that subset that grazes on public lands.

Nevertheless, the removal of all livestock from public lands would still have significant positive benefits for western wildlife, fisheries, watersheds, biodiversity and ecological processes.

Furthermore, access to federal public lands is not equally distributed: Indeed, the majority of public lands forage is controlled by a small percentage of the larger landowning permittees. Like most federal subsidies, the larger operations reap significant and proportionately greater advantages.

For example, a 1992 GAO report found that the 500 largest BLM's permittees controlled 47 percent of all BLM allotment acreage. The top 20 largest permit holders controlled 9.3 percent of all BLM forage or 20.7 million acres of public lands! This includes Idaho billionaire J.R. Simplot whose public lands spread includes more than 2 million acres of rangelands in several western states.

The total federal and state acreage devoted to livestock production is 300 million acres, or an area equal to the acreage of all the eastern seaboard states from Maine to Florida with Missouri thrown in.

According to the 1994 Rangeland Reform EIS, eliminating all livestock use of federal lands would affect only 2.4 percent of the beef cattle inventory in the 17 western states.

To generate continued public acceptance of subsidies and tax benefits enjoyed by agricultural interests, industry proponents typically exaggerate the importance of agriculture's contribution to western economies through the use of dubious "economic multipliers." For example, one Utah State University study of the economic contribution of agriculture to Utah included waitresses and waiters among its agriculture-dependent workers because they served food and food was generated by agriculture!

As Power has noted, another common means of exaggerating the role of public lands in western livestock operations is to use a very low threshold as the minimum when determining whether a ranching operation is "dependent" upon public lands. For instance, one report produced by New Mexico State University included any ranch that received more than 5 percent of its total forage from public lands as "public lands dependent."

Another common ploy is to use the gross economic activity associated with livestock production as a measure of its relative importance to a local or regional economy. As any self-employed individual knows, the important measure is net income, not total expenditures.

Eliminating all livestock grazing on public lands would, according to Dept. of Interior's 1994 Rangeland Reform EIS, result in a total loss of 18,300 jobs in agriculture and related industries across the entire West, or approximately 0.1 percent of total employment in the West. This job loss would be spread across the entire region, and thus would have negligible negative economic effects on any individual state.

Indeed, the more dependent a state's cattle producers are upon public lands forage, typically the fewer ranchers involved due to aridity. For example, in 1992 the GAO reported that there were only 854 BLM grazing allotments in the entire state of Nevada (some ranchers control more than one allotment, thus even fewer ranch operations are involved) covering an average of more than 56,541 acres.

According to the state of Nevada, the number of people employed in all agriculture totals less than 2,200 people. Some of the larger casinos in Las Vegas often employ more people than all the ranching operations in the entire state. Yet public policy in Nevada, as in the rest of the West, is severely skewed to favor these few ranching-dependent individuals at the expense of the general public and the land.

The GAO conducted an assessment of Southwest BLM lands in 1992. According to this "Hot Deserts" report, the agency found that eliminating livestock grazing on BLM allotments would result in "little economic disadvantage." The GAO concluded that "local economies are not dependent on public lands ranching,"

Power found that all ranching (both public and private lands) contributes to less than one half of one percent of all income received by Westerners. If all livestock grazing were terminated on public lands, Power has calculated that it would take less than six days of normal income growth and only 11 days of normal job growth to replace all western federal grazing jobs and income.

Power has argued further that it is growth in other industries that is "supporting" most ranchers, not ranchers supporting rural communities. Ranchers work at other jobs to supplement what is often a negative net income from ranching operations.

The industry and its supporters continuously assert that the livestock industry is the economic backbone of the region. But contrary to common perception, western communities do not depend upon ranching. Rather, it is ranching that depends on rural communities for the outside income that permits most ranchers to live what is essentially a lifestyle choice.

George Wuerthner is a WWP advisory board member who lives in Eugene, Oregon.

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