Comments from Visitors to The Beckoning

People speak out on cattle grazing on public lands

Added 20 June 2003

My web site has inspired a few people to express their opinions to me. (Some of those opinions are not even remotely polite, but such is life.) Not all wish to have their opinions posted on the web, but here are those that do. For now, everyone's comments will be posted on this page for simplicity. In the future, I may have to split this page up by individual or by opinion.

These comments are from Dawn Wellman (2 March 2003):

I am sending you an article I wrote a few months ago. Recently 8 environmental groups have filed suit on the Forest Service for not tripling the amount charged to ranchers for grazing on public land. In the suit it states that public lands are rented for $1.35 a cow a month, and that on private land, cattle grazing costs $13.50. That may be true, but what they don't realize, is that private lands that are rented, are totally maintained "pastures", with all facitlities and water maintained by the owner of the land. Public land leases are maintained by the lessees. Last year it cost us $20 a cow a month, and this year will be more because we had to supplement feed because of the drought here in California. It's not fair to lump all ranchers into the same group....

There has been a lot of controversy lately, regarding cattle on public land. My goal in writing this is to eliminate some of the misconceptions. I know there are many good-hearted people that want to help save the environment. I also know there are some radical environmental groups with lawyers that want to be rid of everything on public land, without taking into consideration how it effects everything as a whole, or if it is really the best thing to do.

I admit, to get rid of everything for the sake of endangered species sounds good, at first, and there are many legitimate issues that need to be dealt with, but to close everything down without studying them, damages the credibility of anyone concerned with balancing the environment. I am compelled to defend a historical profession that is close to extinction. There are very few small family operated cattle businesses left in California.

President Abraham Lincoln knew when he founded the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 1862, that it was wise to have stewards for the vast and wild lands. He called it the "people's department". Their motto from the beginning, and to this day, is "caring for the land and serving people. One of the ways it serves the people, is by leasing land for various enterprises such as cattle ranching, which also generates revenue for the managing of public lands.

Columbus brought cattle to this continent in 1521. He dropped them off in ports where he stopped, to insure there would be something for future expeditions to eat when they got there. Over time, these scraggly cattle evolved into what are known as Texas Longhorn, or Longhorn cattle. They are the only cattle recognized as a breed, which were not manipulated by man.

Unlike domesticated cattle, Longhorns have evolved into formidable, long legged animals, that can run amazingly fast, and despite their size, they are surprisingly agile and graceful. Even the most massive horned ones can glide through the thick brush without a sound. Longhorn cattle are dozens of colors and color combinations; no two look alike. They behave more like a wild animal than a domesticated cow. They go off by themselves to give birth, but if a mother or calf scream an alarm, cattle come running from every direction to the rescue. They will circle the babies to protect them from predators. There are accounts of wild Longhorn bulls and grizzly bears fighting; the bears were not always the winners.

The missions kept cattle, and during the gold rush days, circa 1849, cattle were in great demand, and thousands of head of livestock were brought into California. But by 1855, the decline in mining and the growth of the sheep industry among other things led to a decline in cattle prices. A severe drought persisted for the next few years, which left many cattle ranchers bankrupt.

After secularization the ranchos depended on the Cahuilla Indians to take care of their vast herds of cattle, and Cahuilla men adapted quickly, becoming known as some of the best cattle and horsemen. So in the 1860's, when my ancestors settled in the San Jacinto Mountain area of southern California, the Cahuilla Indians already owned and managed their own herds of cattle. There were no fences in those days, so my family and the Cahuillas worked together, as friends and neighbors. There were no men more knowledgeable about this unique and diverse land, now known as the Idyllwild, Anza, Borrego, Pinyon, and Palm Canyon areas from the high mountain valleys to the desert floor. It was apparent from the beginning that the Longhorn was the only breed of cattle that would be able to adapt to these harsh conditions.

When the weather was cold, the cattle were moved to the desert canyons and warm areas where grasses grew in abundance. During the summer, they migrated to the higher elevations where the water was cool, and the grasses plentiful. The cattle were never left to overgraze. If it was a drought year, cattle were sold, or moved to other areas to lessen the impact.

We try to keep the same cows, because they retain memories of where to go for water, for shelter, the best place to go to give birth, as well as when to start moving from one place to another. The cows have names and personalities, and we get to know them well over the years. We sell the calves, rotating, as new calves are born, depending on the condition of the range. Some of the cows are descendants of the famous King Ranch in Texas, brought here in the early1900's, by my grandfather, Jim Wellman, and his uncles.

For almost a hundred and fifty years we have taken care of and lived in harmony on this land. And for many years before that, the Cahuilla Indians did the same. It is our privilege and to our advantage to take care of the land and the creatures that live on it. One of my first memories is how excited we all would get when we would see wildlife. We still get excited to this day. The cattle and the wildlife have co-existed for many years.

Many solutions to environmental problems can be found by looking into the past. I am concerned that the people that are speaking the loudest and are considered "environmental experts", have spent very little time, if any, on the land they are claiming to know so much about. They have told us that our mountains and deserts are being denuded and eroding away. That the streams and riparian areas are being robbed of their lifeblood, and that the only way to fix it, is to stop all management, and human contact.

Anthropologists and archaeologists are discovering that throughout history native people have managed the land in one fashion or another. Cahuilla oral history tells of planting and harvesting indigenous plants. They used fire as a managing tool on the land, and burned palm fronds to kill bugs. Their creation stories tell that farming was done from the time Mukat, their creator died; his various body parts became squash, corn, etc.

The land responds favorably to being managed, and there are advantages that some of the "experts" don't mention. Water has been a problem throughout history in this area. But water sources have had to be maintained for the cattle, which in turn has provided water for wildlife, and developed riparian areas that would otherwise not be there. My dad, Bud Wellman, learned how to locate water and drive a pipe into the side of a hill to make a "horizontal well". It takes no energy or contraptions, to supply a constant source of water. (The same riparian areas are being fenced in now, so that the cattle have no access to the water).

There are other advantages too. Longhorns eat the tough woody parts of plants that other animals won't eat, which promotes fresh green growth for other wildlife, reduces fire fuel loads and keeps brush from taking over otherwise grassy areas.

There will also be more predatory problems for the endangered Bighorn Sheep if the cattle are taken off the menu.

We have never had even close to 3000 cows, but in defense of cattle causing erosion, I am quoting from a book written by Dan Dagget, called Beyond the Rangeland Conflict (1998) which has several successful accountings of ranchers working with the land managing agencies i.e. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service, to protect the environment as we do. The author is looking at the ground where 3,000 cows have just passed on their way to water and says, "I look at the devastation caused by all this activity and wonder: If this is what a grassland looks like after 3,000 cows, what would it look like after 100,000 buffalo? As far as we know, this area did not have great herds of anything, but it responds as if it remembers. 'Do you know what would happen to this if it rained?', Rukin Jelks asks. 'Massive erosion', I think, but before I can reply, he continues. 'It'll soak up water, lots of water… and when it gets wet, it explodes with growth'". The cattle actually help erosion by breaking the crust that forms on top of the soil so that water can pool, and soak in.

The state veterinarian says our cattle are healthy, they are tested regularly for diseases, and there is absolutely no scientific evidence that cattle transmit diseases to wildlife. I call them "organic beef," because when range cattle are gone, the only alternative will be feed lot beef, which are pumped full of steroids, and left to stand in their own feces to fatten.

Since environmental lawyers have gotten involved in management decisions regarding public lands, we have lost most of the land our cattle previously used for winter graze. This has not only upset the balance, it is necessitating the installation of fencing to keep the cattle from trespassing into areas designated as "Bighorn Sheep habitat". However, the sheep have never been known to use this habitat, and will be less likely to use it once the cattle are gone, because the brush will take over. Sheep avoid brushy areas where they cannot see, they like escape terrain, open areas or steep, rocky cliffs.

The Sierra Club's local representative vigorously opposes a fence, "especially fences installed in washes that are not break-away fences". Ironically, the Southwest Center of Biodiversity, another "environmental" group, which has recently moved into our area, is bringing suits against the Forest Service to fence in riparian areas. They have already fenced water sources in such places as Fobes and Live Oak Canyons, WITHOUT gates.

The mountain/desert area of the San Jacinto Mountains is unique in its diversity. We need to be protective of it, and pay attention to the natural cycles of the plants, animals, and the land. It is a whole ecosystem and management practices need to fit into the whole instead of forcing the ecosystem to fit management.

Less time is being spent managing our public lands because of environmental lawsuits. The agencies in charge of managing our environment spend most of their working hours complying to what lawyers think is best. My dad, in his eighties now, spends more time in meetings and courtrooms defending his way of life, than out on the range doing what he knows best. His experience and knowledge are invaluable, but he is being treated as if he were the enemy.

It has become very difficult and time consuming to maintain balance since the loss of most of the winter graze and water on the desert side of the mountain. The closing of Dunn Road has further complicated matters. It now takes several hours to access some areas. My sister Twila says, "the harder the environmentalists make it, the more determined I am to stick with it". But I don't know for how much longer that will be feasible.

We not only depend on the cattle for economic livelihood, it is a way of life, one rapidly becoming extinct, and along with it, the knowledge of the land, passed down through generations, knowledge which is historically valuable. Once it is gone it can never be re-created.

Thank you for listening to my side.... Dawn Wellman, fifth generation of cattle people in the San Jacinto Mountains.

These comments are from Anonymous (23 and 27 April 2003):

Most farmers/ranchers will not allow their cattle to over graze one area or eat the grass plant down to the ground. If they do then the grass will not grow back in time for the next years grazing, this would basically be cutting their own throats. If they have no grass on the grazing land then they either have to find a new place to graze their cattle or buy feed. This will cost them more and most don't or won't let their cattle over graze. Also most ranchers practice what is called pasture rotation. This is when the cattle have eaten half of the grass plant and the farmer/rancher move they're cattle to another grazing area to allow the other pasture to regrow for the next year.

I'm only a teenager telling you this but i have also done my research. I live in a farm community and no farmer wants to loss more money then what they are already losing.

I live in Quincy Washington, about the middle of the state. I guess I'm talking more of the private land because we don't really have public grazing land here. It's also kind of interesting why public lands aren't taken care of as well as the private land, but i think it's mainly because in public land you don't own it so it doesn't hurt the person with the cattle they just find a new pasture.

These comments are from Jane Nielson (22 August 2001):

I happened upon your page when looking for stories on cattle grazing for a book I am co-writing. The subject matter of the book is various human uses (abuses) that destroy western lands.

I find your information is very good--a reader gets the essential outlines of the issues around grazing, and your factual content is praiseworthy. I was especially pleased to note that you used for a reference the "Desertification" pamphlet by my friend Dave Sheridan.

One aspect of your writing on this topic seems a misrepresentation, however--that is the theme of "government" vs "private" lands. The US is one of the few countries that was able to preserve large expanses of lands from private ownership, even though the history of the public lands has been one of constant give-aways to large financial interests (the Homestead Acts, for instance. The laws were aparrently aimed to parcel land out to poorer individuals and families--but the majority failed. The law did not provide for lands of failed homesteaders to be returned to the public domain; instead, they were gobbled up by investors who put together the west's big ranches. For a pittance).

My objection is that you state that public lands "belong" to the government. Perhaps this seems to be true, in effect, but it is not true in law. The lands belong to the public, and whatever government does actually do, the agencies are supposed to manage public lands to benefit the public.

The destruction of public lands by grazing does not benefit the public at all, especially financially, since the cost of a permit is rock-bottom--less than 2 bucks an AUM, whereas the cost of running cows on public lands is at least ten times as much. Why?? Because private landowners try to preserve the health of their lands, and that cost of grazing helps them do so.

So the public land managers are not managing the lands to keep them healthy in the public interest, nor have reformers been able to bring the price for degrading lands up to even a quarter of the cost of grazing on private lands.

And what about privatizing these lands? The fact is that the permit-holding ranchers don't really want to acquire the public-land allotments that they use. For one thing, it would cost them a lot more to own those now run-down acres than it does to pay for the permits. So they are better off as permittees--especially if they can continue to misuse public lands as they have in the past.

The environmentalists I know (for example, the Center for Biological Diversity) are not trying to run cattle off the allotments, but are trying to make the land managers (the government) manage the land to preserve wildlife habitat (for example, making BLM make the graziers move the cattle seasonally the way they are supposed to).

But even if the aim was to revoke all the government permits for grazing on public lands, it would eliminate only 3% of US beef production (using 270 million acres of public lands)1. To put these minuscule numbers in perspective, the "total number of beef cows in the 11 western states is not as great as those that exist just in Texas and Oklahoma,"2 where all cows graze on private holdings.

So ending public lands grazing would not wipe out a traditional western life style--but it would take out the most financially-marginal cattle operations.

And who are the permitees?? Many are billionaires, including corporations. The top 10 percent of BLM permit-holders control 65 percent of the livestock on BLM public lands, and the top 10 percent of USFS permit-holders control 49 percent of cattle on Forest Service public lands. Paul Rogers and Jennifer LaFleur3 put it this way-"when it comes to grazing at the federal trough, no one sits taller in the saddle than corporate cowboys." To add salt to the wound, the BLM's own assessments show that 46 percent of public land parcels used by its 20 largest permit holders are in unsatisfactory condition. In comparison, only 27 percent of public grazing parcels overall are in unsatisfactory condition4.

Keep up the good work. I'm glad you re-found your vision.

JE Nielson


1. U.S. General Accounting Office, Rangeland Management-BLM's Hot Desert Grazing Program Merits Reconsideration; the GAO assessment did not include the Great Basin Desert, covering much of Nevada, eastern Oregon, southern Idaho, and western Utah.

2. D.L. Donahue, 1999, The Western Range Revisited-Removing Livestock from Public Lands to Conserve Native Biodiversity (Norman, Oklahoma, University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 388 p.

3. Paul Rogers and Jennifer LaFleur, Cash Cows, The Giveaway of the West, Special Report, San Jose Mercury News (November 7, 1999)

4. U.S. Department of the Interior, Office of Inspector General, Audit Report-Selected Grazing Lease Activities, Bureau of Land Management, Report No. 92-I-1364, Washington, DC, U.S. Department of the Interior (1992), 40 pp.

(The working title of Jane Nielson's book is "Land Abuse, the American West." If you want to know more about them, read the last chapter (titled "Moonwlaker") of "Science under Siege" by Todd Wilkinson. It's a 90's publication.)

These comments are from Jen, who runs (29 November 2001):

Your pages are so full of wonderful and thought provoking controversy! I live in the state of SD. Which this whole state just about is AG and Cattle ranch reliant. The town near where I live, population 1,998 , the sale barn employees a large portion of the town and the rural area's population. Without the sale barn, much of the town would die. South Dakota, in whole has many a small towns that are in fact in the process or have in fact "died". The Ranching business, is a hard business. And most Ranchers anymore, "have" to find outside means to support the ranch. As well as "Farms".

I read your pages with much interest! And you bring about very good points and many I agree with. I found one aspect that seemed to be missing, though I may have missed it. That is the "consumer".. The Beef industry, in reality, the producer does not fare well, in this modern day, the day of "Cattle Barren" is long past.

Cattle prices drop, while feed, land, water, vaccines, everything to do with production is going up, even the cost in the stores for the finished packaged product. I believe as many, that the "real" rancher, will take care of the land and not over graze it. There is a "lot" that goes on, that the general public are not aware of. The use of chemicals, the damage to water ways, directly and indirectly.. Some ranches out here are very large. They have to be, by comparison to some other states, as the ground just can not feed as many animals, (animal per acre) as other areas, like for example 5 cows per acre in Or, to 1 cow per 10 acres in South Dakota . Ranches that have a lot of cattle, have also "bone piles".. animals that have died from disease or injury. The healthy animals, even the sick or old that can walk, are taken to the sale yard. If it can stand, it gets hauled and sold. The bone piles, depending on the location, can in some cases effect water, either absorbed through the ground, or by direct contact of contamination, the same with chemicals.. The issue you have touched on, is in reality a "very" "large" issue.

I was hoping that if I put the link in a more visible place, maybe some input from mid western areas, could help in the presentation of an even yet fuller picture. (And I could end up on some missing persons list for "some" of what I have told you! ) lol (And not entirely laughable! ) It also seems in many cases, not all, but many, the ones who do lease the lands, are the few with enough land of there own, and money, that don't need the leases) Course that is just a "very" small observation from what I have seen in this small area. I work with the BLM on occasion, I am however with the Wild Horse project. But my old boss was Range Management, and most of the people that held the leases, were pretty well off, and had plenty of there own land.

Then on 10 December 2001 Jen wrote:

You are right on all of your accounts in my opinion on both the chemical companies, and the "ol time rancher's".. that most "ranches" these days are controlled, more and more by the "big cities lawyer wanna "get back to my roots" "own a ranch!.. wanna be types .. that could care less.. I have seen that time and time again, and in a growing sense.

I am not to sure about that "Ranchers" do not carry more of the responsibility also though, they "could" after all,, keep themselves educated..and at least "listen" to some idea's,, they are "slow" to change, "if" at all.. Unless it comes from those "big companies". I have seen many,, that end up "losing the farm" so to speak, because they have not or can not modernize ,, in "some" aspects. Around here.. they are "much" "slower" to change.. with the attitude of "Thats the way my dad, did it,, and his dad before him, and so on"

The Small towns, die, the ranch "die's" with the death of a generation.. Land prices go up, because the "Big city" Guys, we have talked about come in and buy up the land at prices, the people who "do" love it, know it, and know how to run it, can't afford it. The kids that have grown up with it,, and "would" like to carry on,, "can't".. In part, rural America.. has their share of the responsibility,, like you said.. so much is the "bottom line".. no enough looking down the road!

But that it seems, is all over America.. you can see it all over.. the violence in the country.. kids in schools, the shootings, etc.. the government, and society looking for "who to blame",, instead of .. just looking at "what changes".. I think they see them.. I think,, there is far to much of "Not my problem".. or .. Actually,, this is just to huge a topic.. it all feeds together,, ranches, companies.. all goes right back to the "bottom line".. and we all have a part in it.. as an individual, a town, a county and up.. and those of us that "see" it.. and "say" anything.. well,, hopefully "seeds are planted"?.. For example the things I saw in people right after the September 11th attack.. To bad, "more" of the changes, the feelings, the "Awakenings".. Though shock provoked.. (as always seems the case in times of tragedy) I was hoping "more" would "stay" changed.. I "do" think,, "some" are, forever changed, and for the better.. but.. time will tell,, around here.. everything has gone back to as if nothing has ever happened.. all they see is the nose in front of there own face. And the implants of hormones,, etc.. Alive and well on most ranches here still! Everywhere I am sure, unless. and I know only of "one".. ranch that operates at a strictly. "Organic" fashion.. right down to the pasture being "certified" organic.. NO chemicals! Bet "that" beef tastes pretty good!

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