Eating the land away
These two advocates of the political left and right can agree on one
thing: why are they cutting off welfare moms when they should be cutting
off welfare cows.
by Karl Hess, Jr. and Johanna WaId
e are both veterans of America's longest war: the war
over the public lands of the West. For the past quarter century - in a conflict
that dates back to the Civil War - we have written and spoken about livestock
grazing on federal lands and fought over how those lands should be governed.
We have, in the process, pitted ourselves and our affiliations - the fiscally
and politically conservative Cato Institute and the environmentalist NRDC
- against one another.
But the range policy fence that has divided us is toppling,
thanks to interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and the 104th Congress. While
we and the organizations we represent disagree on many issues, our common
ground starts with the federal lands of the West. They are awe-inspiring,
containing many of the country's most treasured landscapes. They are ecologically
rich, stretching from alpine meadows to desert basins. They are culturally
laden, vital to our history and our American identity.
Western public lands are important for many things,
but thanks to the "wisdom" of federal policy, the use to which
they are put favors the one thing Americans want least from them: subsidized
cows. Almost 200 million acres of federal grass and forest are devoted to
producing less than 3.5 percent of the nation's beef. Take away those acres
and the cost of a steak would not increase by a penny. And having fewer
cows would lessen the current over-supply of cattle and slow the plunge
in beef prices.
We are not arguing for a purge of livestock and stock
growers from all federal ranges. Public-land ranchers are largely decent
and caring people whose love of the land is real.
What we object to are the laws and policies that have
made cattle and sheep the political business of the West and that are the
source of degradation of millions of acres of public lands. We think it
perverse that so-called range reforms - the grazing regulations set by Babbitt
in August and the Public Rangeland Management Act proposed in the Senate
by Pete Domenici (R-NM) - should erect fences around grazing to protect
ranchers from economic and environmental responsibility.
Babbitt's regulations ignore the fundamental question:
"Is livestock grazing what the public wants?" Rather, Babbitt
assumes it is, and then mandates that taxpayers continue to pay for it.
The Public Rangeland Management Act is far worse for
the environment. Like the regulations, it would keep the subsidies that
sustain public-land ranching at current levels. But it would also erect
even higher fences to protect the cowboy monopoly on federal lands. Ranchers
who wanted to graze their lands conservatively, or not at all, would face
the loss of their federal permits. Ranchers with large grazing permits would
win; bankers with collateral interests in grazing permits would win; taxpayers
We believe there is another strategy that better fits
the present needs of the nation and represents genuine range reform.
First, Congress should put public land grazing on a
market footing: ranchers, not taxpayers, should pay for using federal grass.
It should zero a range-budget deficit that amounts to almost $500 million
per year on BLM and Forest Service lands (when the costs of planning, resource
mitigation, and USDA range subsidies are added to the official $70 million
Raising grazing fees will not cut the red ink, though; costs must be trimmed
by, for instance, ending the practice of sending half of grazing-fee revenue
back to the ranchers. Further, $100 to 200 million can be sliced from the
grazing deficit by ending USDA subsidies - services like brush control,
animal damage control, and emergency feed.
Second, Congress should bust the cowboy trust on federal
lands. All Americans should be free to acquire permits to federal grass
and to use the lands to enhance wildlife, stabilize soils, protect endangered
species, improve riparian areas - or, if they prefer, raise red meat. Concerned
environmentalists would have less cause to push for a political end to grazing
on ecologically fragile public lands; for the first time, they will have
Third, Congress should authorize the secretaries of
Interior and Agriculture to engage in an array of range reform experiments
that might better protect public lands -such as sustainable land use tailored
to the Western rural economy; investing public-land user fees in biological
diversity trust funds; and creating non-fee incentives for better land stewardship
and effective citizen involvement.
This range reform package is not a panacea. It does,
however, reflect the value of open discourse among different points of view
- a discourse that Babbitt's regulations steer away from, and that the Public
Rangeland Management Act precludes altogether. Our package will not only
tear down the fences that divide organizations like ours, but also those
that divide East from West and the new West from the old.
Karl Hess, Jr. is a senior fellow in environmental studies at the
Cato Institute. Johanna Wald is director of the Land Program at NRDC. Members
of the Natural Resources Defense Council subscribe to the Amicus Journal
through their dues. Contact NRDC, 6310 San Vicente Blvd. Ste 250, Los Angeles
CA 90048 (213)934-6900.