Public lands ranching is destroying the Western United States
By Will Falk
Public lands ranching is destroying the Western United States. It has pushed native plant species to the brink of extinction. It causes soil to erode so quickly the land cannot keep up. Livestock are poisoning and depleting water supplies, killing perennial stream flows, and are making it increasingly difficult for surface water to accumulate. Stockmen and the animals they raise have devastated populations of iconic American animals like bison, elk, pronghorn, and sage-grouse. Ranchers, ever jealous of the trees their stock cannot eat, encourage the clear-cutting of forests.
Livestock grazing is the single most ecologically destructive activity happening in the Western United States today. To stop the continued destruction of pinyon-juniper forests, to stop the continued destruction of the entire region, public lands ranching must cease.
Livestock grazing is the single most ecologically destructive activity happening in the Western United States today. … [T]o stop the continued destruction of the entire region, public lands ranching must cease.
I cannot decide whether writing this essay in the wake of Ammon Bundy’s arrest and Lavoy Finicum’s death at the hands of the FBI and Oregon State Police after their occupation of Northern Paiute land at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is good or bad. It could be good because this story has finally forced public lands ranching, or “welfare ranching,” and the policies of federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and US Forest Service into the public’s consciousness.
On the other hand, there is the risk that while Bundy and his angry white men waved their rifles in the faces of law enforcement complaining about federal agencies like BLM and the Forest Service, the public developed too much sympathy for those Bundy threatened. These agencies might look like the good guys against Big Bad Bundy while the agencies’ own atrocities go over-looked.
Do not feel sorry for BLM. Those of us who care about life in the region really should be angry with how these federal agencies are run. Now, I am certainly not saying we should be angry for the same reasons as Bundy. No, we should be angry with BLM and Bundy together because they play for the same team: the ranching industry.
In my last essay, Pinyon-Juniper Forests: BLM’s False Claims to Virtue, I explained how the Bureau of Land Management lies to support deforestation across the Great Basin. Undermining BLM’s bad science took up the bulk of the essay, so now I turn to answering why BLM lies like this.
[M]any commentators have confused the Forest Service and BLM with conservation. Neither the Forest Service nor the BLM have ever been concerned with the health of the land—except where the health of the land benefits livestock production.
BLM lies because BLM exists—and has always existed—to serve the ranching industry. Simply blaming BLM for pinyon-juniper deforestation without indicting the ranching industry fails to address the roots of the problem.
Lynn Jacobs gives an excellent history lesson and shows how both the Forest Service and BLM were created to serve the ranching industry in his book “The Waste of the West: Public Lands Ranching.” One of the problematic themes to emerge during Bundy’s occupation is the way many commentators have confused the Forest Service and BLM with conservation. Neither the Forest Service nor the BLM have ever been concerned with the health of the land—except where the health of the land benefits livestock production.
It is true that in the 1890s, powerful ranchers looked at range-lands and saw depletion of water supplies, soil, game animals, and economically useful vegetation. But, they never asked if livestock grazing was feasible. The only thing they were concerned with was how the declining health of the land affected their profits. Powerful ranchers watched the pie their livestock fed off be consumed by smaller nomadic herders, too. Instead of ensuring the survival of the pie, the most powerful ranchers were only concerned about gaining a larger slice for their livestock while restricting weaker ranchers’ access to that pie. Despite some conservation verbiage being used, the Forest Service and BLM were actually formed to ensure the dominance of already powerful businessmen over everyone else. This is a scenario that plays out continuously through the history of capitalism.
In 1905, the Forest Service was formed and Jacobs says that powerful ranchers were instrumental in placing it under the jurisdiction of the US Department of Agriculture instead of the Department of the Interior where it logically belonged. Many ranchers became district, forest, regional, and national Forest Service range and administrative officials and this is still true today. One of the first regulations enacted by the Forest Service set up grazing regulations, created allotments, issued permits, and charged a fee of five cents per month for each cow or 5 sheep grazed. This regulation effectively ended nomadic herding on Forest Service land.
BLM was formed in 1946, again under the influence of powerful ranchers … “In short, the Forest Service and BLM (and states etc.) functioned more as grazing industry tools than true regulatory agencies.”
BLM is a younger agency than the Forest Service and its roots are found in the congressional Taylor Grazing Act of 1935. Jacobs notes that the Act’s namesake, Representative Edward Taylor—a rancher from Colorado and “sworn enemy of conservationists”—pushed the bill through Congress with the express intent of eliminating nomadic herding. The Act created the Division of Grazing under the Department of the Interior and attacked nomadic herders by providing that only those with well-established, substantial private ranch holdings near public land could gain grazing leases.
The first director of the Division of Grazing was a Colorado rancher, Farrington Carpenter, who cemented the ranchers’ power over the Division by establishing local “grazing advisory boards.” The boards were elected by local ranchers. Jacobs explains that these advisory boards were “composed mostly of the same large scale, aggressive, politically savvy ranchers who helped create the Forest Service and Taylor Grazing Act and awarded themselves federal grazing permits…” The Division of Grazing was reorganized into the Grazing Service in 1939.
BLM was formed in 1946, again under the influence of powerful ranchers, when the old Grazing Service and General Land office were combined. Jacobs states that “grazing and ranching abuses and political, economic, and social injustice continued largely unchecked.” Jacobs describes the way many ranchers behaved after BLM was established. Notice how he could be describing the Bundy situation perfectly. “For many years, ranchers refused to obtain permits, pay grazing fees, or follow any regulations whatsoever. When agency personnel attempted enforcement, traditional grazing industry power neutralized the challenge by applying political, social, and economic pressure where needed. In short, the Forest Service and BLM (and states etc.) functioned more as grazing industry tools than true regulatory agencies.”
The same must be said of these agencies today.
“Soon, those who thought they were going to do something positive for wildlife learn to identify with their captors. The ones who bow down the most to industry rise to be managers.”
To be clear, there are many BLM and other federal agency employees that truly do desire what is best for life in the region. There are individuals of good heart in these agencies who strive to do the right thing. Unfortunately, BLM leaders remain captured by the livestock industry and non-stop intimidation like that expressed by Ammon Bundy make it incredibly difficult for employees charged with enforcing environmental laws to do so.
Consider what my friend, Katie Fite—a biologist and a woman with more experience advocating for the natural world against bad BLM policies than perhaps anyone in the world, has said about some BLM staff. Fite encourages us to “make a distinction between BLM the Agency and some of the staff that try to enforce protections that are supposed to exist … These people too become victims of the cattlemen—forced to lie, bury their heads in the sand, and bow to rancher thugs on a daily basis.” And, as so often happens in our dominant, capitalist culture where destruction is rewarded, Fite explains, “Soon, those who thought they were going to do something positive for wildlife learn to identify with their captors. The ones who bow down the most to industry rise to be managers.”
Fite’s insights, however, should not be an excuse. Despite the intentions of some good-hearted BLM and Forest Service staff, the operations of these agencies have been a disaster for life in the region.
In addition to providing essential historical research, Jacobs’ “The Waste of the West: Public Lands Ranching” is a comprehensive examination (602 text-book sized pages) of the physical impact of ranching on the lands comprising the Western United States. Jacobs research on what ranching does to plants, soil, water, and animals in the West paints a grim picture.
“Western rangeland is losing topsoil, mostly due to ranching, at least 4 to 5 times faster than it’s being replaced.”
Jacobs begins by explaining that grass and small herbaceous plants that cows, sheep, and goats eat form the “plankton of the land.” These countless trillions of small plants form the base of the complex food web that supports all of life in the Great Basin. These plants provide oxygen to the atmosphere, nourishment to animals, and maintain soil, water, fire, and atmospheric dynamics. Tragically, according to Jacobs, “Livestock grazing has destroyed the plankton of the land in the Western United States—and around the globe—more extensively than has any other human pursuit.”
Next, Jacobs notes that soil has been called “the soul of life itself” and reminds readers that “without adequate and fertile soil, most terrestrial plant and animal life ceases.” Of course, he means human life, too. Jacobs writes, “For over 100 years livestock grazing has been the major cause of both increased soil erosion and decreased soil fertility on Western public land. Most soil loss and damage is a result of livestock stripping off and trampling vegetation…”
To make this even scarier, Jacobs cites United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Soil Conservation Service (SCS) reports to estimate that “Western rangeland is losing topsoil, mostly due to ranching, at least 4 to 5 times faster than it’s being replaced.” Meanwhile, ranching industry servants like BLM are working to put more cattle on the land. It does not take a mathematical expert to conclude that if ranchers have their way, rangelands will run out of topsoil.
This may be obvious, but when plants, soil, and water are destroyed, animals will be destroyed, too.
Water, an essential element of life anywhere, is even more precious in the semi-arid regions of the Western United States. According to Jacobs, livestock grazing harms both water quality and the amount of water absorbed, retained, and released slowly as surface flow. He describes what has happened since the arrival of livestock, “When stockmen seized the West and livestock numbers skyrocketed in the late 1800s, water tables immediately began dropping in most grazed areas. Steadily since then many thousands of surface waters have vanished…by far the major force exhausting Western water sources has been and remains livestock grazing.”
This may be obvious, but when plants, soil, and water are destroyed, animals will be destroyed, too. Again, this is as true for humans as it is for pinyon jays, grizzly bears, and bison. Jacobs states that botanists estimate that the the loss of one plant species in a natural community affects the life processes of, on average, at least 15 animal species. As livestock eat up native grasses ranchers and the BLM replace them with exotic grasses. The animals depending on those native grasses suffer. Jacobs lists buffalo, elk, whitetail and mule deer, bighorn sheep, and pronghorns as the native animals most noticeably affected by livestock.
Most people are aware of the atrocities visited upon buffalo who were pushed to near total extinction in the latter years of the 19th century. Jacobs details the role the ranching industry played,“That the buffalo’s demise was due mainly to the US campaign (led largely by stockmen) to subjugate the “Indians” by destroying their livelihood…is well-documented.” He goes on to explain that cattle competed with buffalo by overgrazing their forage plants, introducing disease, and “occupying nearly all their former range, effectively eliminating opportunities for re-establishment.”
[T]housands of elk in Yellowstone National Park starved to death in the winter of 1988-89 in large part because elk are no longer able to migrate to lower elevation forage lands occupied by cattle.
Ranching has produced similar disasters for elk who now occupy less than 15% of their former range with populations of perhaps 10% of their original numbers. Jacobs references a horrific event where thousands of elk in Yellowstone National Park starved to death in the winter of 1988-89 in large part because elk are no longer able to migrate to lower elevation forage lands occupied by cattle. Comparable stories exist for big horn sheep, pronghorns, and deer.
This essay series is about protecting pinyon-juniper forests, so how does ranching affect pinyon-juniper forests?
Ranchers hate forests because trees make poor food for livestock. Just how badly do ranchers hate pinyon-juniper forests? Ronald Lanner in his book “The Pinyon Pine: A Natural and Cultural History” estimates that between 1950 and 1964 three million acres of pinyon-juniper forests were converted to grazing lands while between 1960 and 1972 the Forest Service and BLM cut over a third of a million of acres in Utah and Nevada alone. In the preceding sentence, the term “converted” means the forests were destroyed by chaining and seeding. As I’ve written in earlier essays, “chaining” is performed when a battleship anchor chain is stretched between two tractors which are driven parallel to each other over the forest floor. The chain uproots everything in its path.
[T]he conversion process requires that cultivation and seeding take place … [A] process which includes drills that punch seeds into the soil’s surface and driving machinery to apply seeds, herbicides, and other chemicals to the land deeply traumatizes the natural communities where these activities are performed.
After the forests are chained, the conversion process requires that cultivation and seeding take place to force land that was once forested to support livestock forage. But, as you might expect, the seeding process which includes drills that punch seeds into the soil’s surface and driving machinery to apply seeds, herbicides, and other chemicals to the land deeply traumatizes the natural communities where these activities are performed.
Allison Jones, Jim Catlin. and Emanuel Vazquez describe the destructiveness of chaining combined with mechanical seeding in their essay “Mechanical Treatment of Pinyon-Juniper and Sagebrush Systems in the Intermountain West: A Review of the Literature.” In addition to the sheer violence performed when plants are ripped up by their roots, the machines involved is extremely destructive to the soil’s biological crusts. Essential mosses and lichen, for example, are torn up as the machines drive over the land. Soil erosion intensifies after chaining and seeding. Natural water run-off patterns and accumulation zones are disturbed. In short, ranchers hope the conversion process will produce a short-term gain for livestock production at the expense of the land’s long-term health.
But, after all this damage is done to force the land to be something it doesn’t want to be, does chaining and seeding actually lead to increased livestock forage?
But, after all this damage is done to force the land to be something it doesn’t want to be, does chaining and seeding actually lead to increased livestock forage? Ranchers and BLM often claim that clear-cutting pinyon-juniper forests will release native perennial grasses and forbs (that livestock consume) from competition and lead to more productive populations of native grasses and forbs.
Jones et al. say that this doesn’t often happen. They write, “It is true that treated sites often show increases in herbaceous vegetation compared to pre-treatment conditions, though long-term studies indicate that often the benefit is short-lived.” What happens, in reality, is that non-desirable shrubs respond more quickly than native forage species to the removal of the forests. The shrubs fill the niche created when the forests are destroyed more quickly than the native forage species. It seems the ranchers are shooting themselves in the foot.
[M]y memories of the golden sunshine filtered through the silver nettles of pinyon pine trees, the glimpse of blue pinyon jay feathers winging past bundles of juniper berries, and the joy experienced seeing pronghorn sprint across a Great Basin valley floor demand that I understand the forces threatening all these [and] work to stop their destruction.
It is my hope that this Pinyon-Juniper series will shed light on the ecological deterioration of the Western United States. The West (apart from the California coast and several scattered urban areas) is a large place, sparsely populated by humans. Most humans who do live here live in urban areas. The destruction happening in rural, federally managed lands is rarely placed in front of us.
My understanding of all this began with a short visit to beautiful, ancient pinyon-juniper forests. Though I sit here at my kitchen table in a brand new condo in Park City, Utah with artificial, electric light falling around me listening to my favorite Phish jams playing on Spotify, my memories of the golden sunshine filtered through the silver nettles of pinyon pine trees, the glimpse of blue pinyon jay feathers winging past bundles of juniper berries, and the joy experienced seeing pronghorn sprint across a Great Basin valley floor demand that I understand the forces threatening all these with destruction. Armed with this understanding, the forests and all the life found in them demand that I work to stop their destruction.