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Does Raising Cattle in the American West Even Make Sense?

May 10, 2014

Doses Raising Cattle in the American West Even Make Sense? Did it ever?

THE GEOGRAPHIC REALITY OF WESTERN ARIDITY:

More than 96% of all cattle raised in the USA are raised east of the Mississippi River because that’s where there is rainfall agriculture and lush pastures. Up to 50 head of cattle can sometimes be grazed on one acre of pastureland that doesn’t require artificial irrigation.

By contrast, aridity is what defines the geography of the American West: it is desert and semi-desert country. Baked dry with sparse vegetation and precious little water at best and with frequent drought years, you often you need 50 acres for every head of cattle. In parts of southeast Utah, it may be as much as one bovine per section–a square mile.

Have you ever driven Interstate 80 between Salt Lake City and Reno? I’ts a great drive for cruise control and books-on-tape(or CD). Look out the window and ask yourself what idiot pioneer first said, “hey, Clem, this shore look s like good pasture land to me! Let’s bring hundreds of grazing animals and set up shop here.” What wren they thinking?

Further, grazing the already-sparse vegetation is very destructive of desirable plants, nearly eradicating many of them and allowing their replacement by noxious weeds whose control, not to mention attempted eradication, is difficult, very labor-intensive, and expensive to the American taxpayer.

The federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) charges the token fee of $1.35 per month per cow. But if you are a freedom-loving, ruggedly independent, proudly self-reliant cowboy rancher type you don’t have to rely on land owned by godddamn “gummint’” You can proudly choose alternatives such as grazing your herd on state land (typically charging anywhere between $2.80 and $150 per head per month) but Nevada has little state land. Or on private land owned by your friendly neighbors (currently averaging $16.80 in fees per head, per month). Under our free-enterprise system, Cliven Bundy and his fellow ranchers have choices.

FEDERAL SERVICES AND SUBSIDIES:

The federal lands grazing program has been called “supercharged food stamps for bovines”: it collects $2.1 million a year in fees but must spend $144 million trying to undo some of the the massive, continuous damage grazing and over-grazing does. Weed removal, soil management, fencing, wells and water holes, fencing,  pest control (from grasshoppers to coyotes), dead animal disposal,  not to mention the emergency livestock feed program which by 1995  was paying Nevada ranchers an average of $18,000 per claim anytime overgrazing and drought created their predictable and recurring crises. In Oregon federal taxpayers were shelling out over $30,000 a year to each public-land rancher to keep starving cattle alive after the overgrazed ranges could no longer sustain them.

 All the many reparative services another federal agency, The Bureau of Reclamation, provides and on which area ranchers depend, however much they hate to admit it.

The federal government also compensates the states considerably through “Payment In Lieu of Taxes” (PILT).  Since the state cannot levy property tax on federal-owned lands, the feds make it up to them. Much of the Utah and Nevada public educational systems are financed this way. The feds also do the same for land occupied by military bases. For example the State of Utah gets money for the 801,000-plus acres occupied by Dugway proving grounds.  The states of the Old South, home to so many military bases, get a lot of money through these federal subsidies. National Parks and National Forests also are under this PILT system.

 

DID THE FEDERAL GOVENRMNT STEAL THIS LAND FROM THE STATES?

No, Mexico stole it from the Native Americans and the US later stole it from Mexico through the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the end of the Mexican-American War. It was never “private property”, never owned by individuals or by the states. Far from ever being a “Sovereign State” as often falsely claimed by right-wingers, no such entity as “Nevada” ever existed until it was created as a federal territory by an1861 act of congress. An Enabling Act was later passed and signed by President Lincoln clearing the way for Nevada Territory to become a state only if it met several federal stipulations in crafting its proposed state constitution. The territorial officials complied with federal stipulations and adopted a federally-satisfactory constitution, ratified by the territory’s voters.  Lincoln then officially proclaimed the birth of the newly-existing State of Nevada on October 31, 1864.

WHY DO THE FEDS STILL OWN SO MUCH OF THE WESTERN LANDS?

57% of Utah is owned by the feds; 83-85% of Nevada, 48% o Arizona, 42 %of New Mexico, 37% of Colorado, and 45% of California, not to mention 61% of our largest state, Alaska! Think of how much wealth and resources are “locked up” in BLM lands, National Forest land, wildlife refuges, and in National Parks. Wasatch National Forest in northern Utah is huge, encompassing about 1.3 million acres. Dugway Proving Grounds, a Utah testing site for chemical and biological weapons, covers over 801,000 acres. Tonto National Forest in northern Arizona encompasses about 3 million acres. (And does Yellowstone National Park need to be so damn big? It covers2.2 million acres, over 3,400 square miles!) Think of what America’s Job Creators could do if these lands and their resources were unlocked and used to create jobs and met America’s resource needs.

(For those of us who live in The West the scale of these numbers and the distances involved are commonplace but they may be shocking to people from back east.)

THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT: STATE AND LOCAL GOVERNMENTS HAVE REATEDLY REFUSED TO ACCEPT OWNERHSIP OF FEDERAL LANDS

Why? Because they don’ want the responsibility, the burden, or the expense of their maintenance and management, which the feds would then quit paying for. They would also lose the massive variety of federal subsidies they now receive.

THE FEDS TRIED AND TREID AGAIN FOR MANY DECADES TO TURN OWENERSHIP AND CONTROL OF FEDERAL LANDS OVER TO STATE AND LOCAL AUTHROIRTIES

During Herbert Hoover’s presidency (1929-33), again after World War II and yet again during the Reagan administration, federal government tried energetically to turn over ownership of the land to rancher-dominated state and local authorities. They steadfastly refused to accept ownership or control. They didn’t’ want the expense and the responsibility of maintaining and managing the land and they didn’t want to forego all the federal subsidies. Better to live on federal government largesse while bitching about the “damn gummint.”

“GET OUT BUT GIVE US MORE MONEY”:

Even the “Dean of Western Wirers,” Wallace Stegner, certainly a cultural conservative and an sympathetic historian of the Mormon experience in the West, summed up the position of the “sagebrush rebels” and “cowboy cause” towards the federal government as simply “get out but give us more money” This is the rank hypocrisy behind the whole façade. They pose are self-reliant, ruggedly independent, self-made men while actually almost completely  dependent upon n and demanding of, more and more federal government pork-barrel subsidies. This is the situation they and their forebears deliberately and consciously created. It was not imposed upon them by outside forces. A discerning and thoughtful man, Stergner saw through the pretense.

BACK TO MY ORIGINAL QUESTION:

Does raising cattle in the American West really even make any sense at all? Economically, no. the eastern cattle ranches, already producing 96 to 98% of America’s beef could easily make up the difference if cattle ranching in the West stopped completely.

Isn’t cattle ranching in the American West mostly an exercise in nostalgia, heavily subsidized by the federal taxpayer? Promoting and preserving the extremely romanticized, overblown and sanitized Cult of the Cowboy, a myth, a fantasy, and a legend largely shaped by Hollywood movies? The ‘legacy” and “heritage” involved are largely a product of the Hollywood dream machine. What, after all, is a cowboy,  Ed Abbey asked, besides an ordinary farmhand who sometimes rides a horse to do his job? What is so wonderful about that?

If this post seems provocative, that is my intent, so fire away in response.

SUGGESTED READING:

Edward Abbey “Free Speech: The Cowboy and His Cow” (controversial and scathing 1985 speech at University of Montana). In his book One Life at a Time, Please. Can be found online for free.

Wallace Stegner, the American West as Living Space

Karl Hess, Jr., “Western Ranchers Fenced Themselves In” The Salt Lake Tribune, op-ed July 20, 1 995. Hess was a senior fellow at the Cato Institute at the time.

Tom Kenworthy, “Western Re-run: Nevada Rancher Versus the Feds” online at Think Progress.org, 2014/04/17.

There s much more information and background available but these will get your started.

 

 

 

 

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