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


Subsidized Federal Grazing Won't Prevent Sprawl
By Andy Kerr

Sprawl is swallowing parts of the West, and people should be concerned.

But too many public officials, editorialists and conservationists fail to address the fundamental cause of sprawl to agricultural lands.

Instead, they fall back on myth: If only American taxpayers would subsidize public lands ranching (more than we already do). Ranchers wouldn't be forced to sell out to developers. Open space and wildlife habitat would be preserved forever. All would be well in the West.

This line of reasoning sidesteps the cause of sprawl. Population growth, coupled with the desire for bigger houses and greater acreage, propels sprawl. Sprawl is driven by the demand for such housing, not the supply of land available for it. The Dakotas have lots of unprofitable farmland for sale, but sprawl isn't a problem in either state.

Government policies can limit sprawl. Land-use planning, as demonstrated in Oregon, can slow sprawl. Government can change policies that now favor large families and wasteful consumption. If people are worried about sprawl, they can insist that state government stop subsidizing people and businesses to move to their part of the world. Growth does not pay for itself. Taxes go up. Government services go down. Quality of life and quality of the environment are compromised.

The federal government can't subsidize agriculture enough to make it profitable. Witness the recent Farm Bill with its tens of billions of dollars in new subsidies. If crop farming in places such as the highly productive Imperial and Willamette valleys is losing out to sprawl, how can high-elevation grazing land in the arid West remain immune to sprawl?

If it is in the public interest to have private ranch lands and farmlands provide the public values of wildlife habitat and open space, then the public will have to pay for it. The question is how

Below-market federal grazing fees, tax breaks (including property, income and sales taxes), direct crop payments, wildlife killing services and other taxpayer-funded subsidies have failed to keep agriculture viable, open space protected and wildlife habitat preserved. This "coincidental conservation," which relies on landowners who want to remain in agriculture despite its increasingly dismal economics, is destined to be short-lived.

Ranchers remain in the ranching business only as long as they perceive themselves rich enough to continue their lifestyle. When conditions change --a rancher goes broke, retires or passes away-- the new landowners will often determine that they aren't rich (or interested) enough to continue the ranching lifestyle. If a private ranch has development potential, that's when development will occur.

Rather than give unconditional (and increasing) subsidies to ranchers in hopes that it will keep them in agriculture and make them resistant to the huge money to be made by selling out to developers, the federal government should expend conditional payments such as non-development and conservation easements.

In exchange for fair compensation, a deed restriction is placed on the property that prevents development and/or requires management for wildlife habitat. This intentional conservation is cost-effective and has a proven track record.

The proposal that the federal government establish a voluntary grazing permit buyout program -- an idea already endorsed by more than 100 conservation groups -- can slow the conversion of the 20 percent of cattle ranches in the West that have federal grazing permits. Permittees who sell their grazing permits can use the cash to retire and remain on their base (private) property, or continue to ranch on private lands, which tend to be more productive. Today, in the absence of a permit buyout program, the only way to recover the economic value associated with federal grazing permits is to sell the entire ranch.

Most grazing operations on federal lands are unprofitable due to declining beef prices, foreign competition and more efficient domestic operations in the East. Thus, even a modest reduction in federal grazing levels can turn a ranching operation that was merely unprofitable to untenable.

A voluntary federal grazing permit buyout program is economically rational, fiscally prudent, ecologically imperative, socially just and politically pragmatic. Putting an end to public lands grazing subsidies would yield vast tax savings -- savings that could be directed to acquire easements designed to prevent development of private lands.

Andy Kerr is director of the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign (www.publiclandsranching.org).

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