Watersheds Messenger     Summer 2002     Vol. IX, No. 2     PDF ISSUE

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Economics 101: Ranching is a Losing Proposition
By Keith Raether

"Rather than rural economies relying on ranching, it's ranching that is relying on the non-ranching rural economy."
Thomas Michael Power, chairman, Department of Economics, University of Montana

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, western papers such as the Denver Post and the Idaho Statesman continue to sell western mythology to their readers, waxing delusional in defense of the ranching industry In a recent editorial, the Idaho Statesman went so far as to assert that it is "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 cliche is absurd. We live in the 21st century, not in the era of Ben Cartwright. The western "feel" that draws people to the interior West 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, kayaking and fly fishing.

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 Post's editorial was confounded and confounding. The headline, "Be Stewards of Our Land," suggested that the paper intended a heart-to-heart with ranchers, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and maybe even Gail Norton at the top of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Instead, the Post chided conservationists, declaring that ranching helps maintain "wildlife habitat and other ecological values."

This, of course, explains why conservation groups routinely invoke the Endangered Species Act to litigate against ranchers, the BLM and the Forest Service for the toll ranching has taken on wildlife habitat and other ecological values.

The Statesman's solution to ranching's affliction is no less misguided. "As the ranching industry fights for its survival, it shouldn't be fighting on its own," the paper maintained.

The truth, of course, is that it isn't. American taxpayers subsidize public lands ranching in excess of $500 million annually. Should taxpayers sweeten the welfare pot for an industry that's already cashing in its chips?

The American public knows better, or else we wouldn't be eating less beef, contributing more to conservation causes and taking more action against abuses of public lands.

The demise of ranching is hardly a death knell for rural communities, a panic button the Statesman pushed in its plea. In Idaho, for example, public lands ranchers account for only one-sixth of 1 percent of all jobs. Their dilemma is no different than that of loggers in Oregon and Washington, miners in Montana or dot.comers in California who've lost their jobs. The future is theirs to see; they just need to look.

Six conservation groups, including Western Watersheds Project, 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 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, consolidate his ranching operations, buy more private land, send his kids to college or retire and go fishing. Ranchers win. Conservationists win. And the ecological values of the West return to health.

In its rallying cry for ranching, the Statesman insisted Idaho "can't afford to lose its ranching industry.

The bottom line of the industry and the streambanks of public lands in the West insist otherwise.

They tell us that this is the 21st century, not the era of manifest destiny.

They tell us Ben Cartwright's bonanza was as real as a Hollywood script. They tell all of us in the stunning but suffering West to look beyond the hummocks and hard times of ranching -- for the "feel" of the West and the good of everyone's kin.

Keith Raether is director of public information for Western Watersheds Project and public information coordinator for the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign.


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