Added 24 February 1997
The public lands grazing issue often becomes an economic issue. The perceived importance of economics is apparent by the volumes of economic data that are available. There are basically two different economic slogans or concepts that get thrown around. Ranchers say that they are already on the verge of bankruptcy and that they are extremely important to local economies. Environmentalists say that taxpayers are both subsidizing ranchers and paying for and living with the damage cattle cause. This is a muddled situation to be sure, so it would be wise to break the discussion down into it's component parts. There will of course, be a certain overlap.
IMPORTANCE TO LOCAL ECONOMIES
In spite of the abundance of information on the economic issues of public lands grazing, there are distinct gaps that must be filled. These gaps are left by pro- and anti-grazing people, whether intentionally or unintentionally, as those people try to argue their respective ideals. In short, to my knowledge, no single community has been analyzed fully for the effects of public lands grazing on the economy of that community. Where one side proposes to make it's point, is not where the other side proposes to make it's point. This, in and of itself is potentially telling, since it *may* indicate that cattle ranching is economically important in some areas, and unimportant in others.
The attempt now is to refrain from comparing apples and oranges, at least to the extent that such a goal is feasible. This desire to not muddy the water by comparing different communities will turn this essay into more of a list, but in the interest of integrity, so be it.
In 1991, the General Accounting Office (GAO), a government agency in charge of overseeing other federal agencies (considered by many to be the most impartial of all government agencies), reported: "local economies do not depend on public-lands ranching for economic survival." It also reported that a large number of permit holders "generate little net income from ranching." Bear in mind, that these words were spoken with respect to Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land in the "hot deserts", where there are approximately 1000 permittees. (1)
In certain respects, it is indeed difficult to understand how most local economies could be sustained by public lands ranching. In 1990, 45% of BLM permittees, and 35% of Forest Service permittees had less than 100 cows. (2) It is highly unlikely that these permittees have much impact on local economies. Those permittees are ranching only for supplemental income, or for other reasons, since it is not possible to make a living solely based on so few cows.
At the other end of the spectrum, 10% of BLM permittees, and 19% of Forest Service permittees account for almost 50% of grazing lease land. These permittees include such "ranchers" as Vail Ski Corporation, Union Oil, and Getty Oil. (3) It could be argued quite persuasively that such permittees (i.e. permittees like the aforementioned corporations) do have a significant impact on local economies, but such permittees are hardly traditional ranchers caring for the land. Such permittees are corporations making money at the expense of taxpayers. They are permittees that, with all due respect, have enough money and do not need to operate in government subsidized cattle ranching to survive.
After a 1990 study by the Southwest Center for Resource Analysis at Western New Mexico University, Catron County officials decided to determine the impact of a 40% grazing fee increase on their county. The determinations of the Catron County officials will be discussed in more detail in the grazing fee section, but a few items are of importance here. They determined that industry wages would decline 40% from $943,500 to $566,100, and that cattle industry jobs would decline 60% from 495 jobs to 198 jobs. It was determined that cash receipts from cattle would decline 40.1% from $20,700,000 to $12,400,000. (4) This last statistic is potentially important.
To continue the discussion of the importance of ranching on local economies, it is necessary to expand the boundaries of the truly local, and talk about whole states. According to an article in Beef (as quoted in War on the West(6)). 44% of ranchers polled in New Mexico said they would quit ranching if grazing fees increased. It was determined that a 44% reduction in cattle businesses would cost the New Mexico Economy $45 million per year. Montana would be hit hardest, with 57% of ranchers quitting, costing the Montana economy $82 million per year. The least effected state would be Washington, with 34% quitting for an economic loss of $4 million per year. Most other states fit in almost exactly half way between these last two examples. Here are the numbers:
|% OF RANCHERS QUITTING
|- $36 million/year
|- $16 million/year
|- $27 million/year
|- $ 27 million/year
|- $14 million/year
|- $19 million/year
|- $24 million/year
|- $39 million/year
Senator John McCain (R, AZ) has said that the cattle industry "is of critical importance to the well-being of many rural communities in Arizona. It has a $302,000,000 annual impact on Arizona's economy." (7) This would appear to contradict the previously quoted study in which a 64% reduction in ranching would only cost the Arizona economy only $36 million/year. It is not known how broadly Senator McCain is interpreting "cattle ranching" though, and one can only assume (and hope) that this is a semantics problem.
Even though grazing fee issues have been touched upon in this section, there is much more to discuss in regards to the subject.
Catron County, New Mexico is almost synonymous with "The Old West". It is a highly rural area with strong ties to the land. After studying a 1991 report on grazing fee increases by the Southwest Center for Resource Analysis at Western New Mexico University, Catron County officials set about to determine what impact grazing fee increases would have on their county. The exact percent of the proposed increase was not known at the time, so Catron County officials chose a 40% increase as their target figure. (Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt wanted the increase to be 130%, but the 1993 compromise was 85%, which wasn't approved either.) Here is what the Catron County officials determined: (8)
|Before 40% grazing fee increase
|After 40% grazing fee increase
|% change (calculated by author)
|Number of ranches
|Head of cattle
|Cash receipts from cattle
|$ 20,700,000 (1989 figure)
|1,100 (by the year 2000)
These numbers indicate that increasing grazing fees can have significant impacts on local economies. The impact of these communities on larger systems is small though. Only 368 people in Catron County would be effected by a 40% grazing fee increase. Without a doubt, it is a shame that anyone lose their job and their livelihood, but more jobs will be lost in the long run if something is not done to bring ranching into the balance of nature.
Another issue concerning grazing fees is the fairness of the fees. Are current grazing fees appropriate? Oregon State University economist Dr. Fred Obermiller has this to say: "[What those who criticize federal grazing fees] don't realize is that nonfee costs associated with management and maintenance and gathering and taking off and death loss out there on the allotment are considerably higher than they are on private lands on average." (9) In this respect, it can be said that current grazing fees are fine for ranchers, but what about everyone else, and the environment? In 1991, the General Accounting Office (GAO), a government agency in charge of overseeing other federal agencies (considered by many to be the most impartial of all government agencies), reported: "Current livestock grazing activity on BLM allotments in hot desert areas risks long-term environmental damage while not generating grazing fee revenues sufficient to provide adequate management." (10) In 1990, federal agencies spent 52 million more dollars on livestock programs than they collected in grazing fees. (11) With 23,600 federal grazing permittees (12), taxpayers are essentially giving each permittee approximately $2,200 per year.
The information contained in this report is contradictory at best, making conclusions difficult to say the least. As one might expect, the importance of ranching operations on local economies is highly varied. Some communities might be devastated by losing ranching, while other economic communities might barely notice the loss of ranching. As with all single professions, it does seem fair to say that public lands ranching is a very small portion of the larger economic systems.
In the end, the question of whether ranchers (and thereby, local communities) can afford higher grazing fees is useless though. Most ranchers are not operating within the sustainable yield of the land. Eventually the production of federal lands will crash so severely that ranchers will go out of business anyway. In that scenario, everyone is a loser. Everyone would be better off to take a relatively small, one-time loss now, than a large, permanent loss later.
There is an easier way around the problem than raising grazing fees though. It is simple, and requires absolutely no government action. It may be extremely difficult to achieve though. The solution is for ranchers to take responsibility for their actions, and for their federal allotments. If ranchers voluntarily maintain public lands within the sustainable yield of the land through the use of better management and/or voluntary cattle reductions, there would be no need for increasing grazing fees. If a rancher is unable to meet those criteria, that rancher should not be allowed to ranch. If a person is unwilling to meet those criteria, that person is not looking out for the better interest of ranching, and should not be called a rancher. A rancher is someone who wants the tradition of ranching to live on. This will not happen if ranching isn't done within the limits of the sustainable yield of the land. Cattle cannot survive on dirt.
Nor can humans.