Till the Cows Come Home
Cows you say? Is there really a bovine threat? Well, for those of you who believe that logging is the dominant threat to our public lands, think again. The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management control about 320 million races in the West. Grazing allotments cover 260 million acres or 82 percent of these lands, lands that have suffered from a century of malign neglect and outright abuse.
In the arid West, political and economic power derives from the control of water. (Check out Donald Worster’s masterful Rivers of Empire for a damning explication of this reality.) Most of the water in the West goes not to satiate the thirst of people, but cows. Ironically, cows don’t treat the West’s most treasured resource very well. Yes, cows do kill salmon and trout and other aquatic species. Spawning beds are trampled, riparian vegetation is devoured, streambanks mangled.
Cows are also the chief source of pollution in the waters of the Interior. Most of the coliform and salmonella bacteria and giardia present in Western streams is discharged by cows. Consider this: cows release about 1000 tons of excrement into Western waters every day. The situation is so ripe that environmental groups in Oregon, the trial balloon state, sued the Forest Service alleging the that current grazing practices violate the Clean Water Act. The environmentalist want the Forest Service to get a Section 404 discharge permit for livestock allotments, a permit usually required for the effluent from power plants, factories and slaughterhouses.
Riparian areas cover about one percent of the total federal lands in the West, but represent vital habitat for about 75 percent of the native flora and fauna of the region. Incredibly, more than 80 percent of the riparian habitat on BLM lands is in a degraded ecological condition, primarily due to domestic livestock grazing. Think about it.
The rangelands themselves are in a similar state. Native grasses and plants are systematically replaced with species more favorable to livestock. Fire is excluded, juniper and brushlands uprooted through chaining operations, and larkspur and other plants sprayed with pesticides. The native grasslands of the Great Basin have almost been eliminated by decades of overgrazing, leaving behind battered legacy of exotic grasses, woody scrubland and neo-deserts of scorched earth. In sum, the range ecosystems of the West have undergone a wholesale ecological conversion that makes the monocultural plantations of Western forests seem incipient by comparison.
The fragmentation of Western rangelands is extreme. For example, nearly every grazing allotment is fence, often with barbed wire, posing significant barriers for the migration routes of elk, deer, bison and pronghorn. A conservative estimate from the BLM suggests that there are at least 300,000 miles of fence zigzagging across federal lands in the West. More realistic estimates put the figure closer to 500,000 miles. No one knows for sure.
Perhaps the ugliest aspect of public lands ranching is its relentless war on the native predators of the West, including grizzlies, wolves, cougar and coyotes. Even though livestock losses to predation total less than two percent per year, there is an entire agency of the federal government set up to act as a mercenary army for Western ranchers: Animal Damage Control (aka, Wildlife Services). Over the past several decades, ADC killers have exacted a terrible toll on already depleted populations of Western predators. Each year, ADC killers track, trap, poison, gas or shoot 135,000 mammals and more than two million birds. Last year, alone, the agency killed more than 80,000 coyotes on public lands, a number as staggering as it is repulsive.
Never mind the fact that there are more cows on public lands than antelope, more domestic sheep than bighorns or mountain goats. There are more predator control agents than there are wolves, more ranchers than grizzlies, more range "scientists" than sockeye salmon in the Snake River basin. "The livestock industry is the last wildlife-genocide program in the United States," range ecologists Bruce Apple to me years ago. Nothing’s changed.
The list of indigenous species threatened by cattle and sheep grazing on public lands is long and growing: willow flycatchers, Lahotan cutthroat trout, burrowing owls, pygmy ferruginous owls, Sage grouse, Dakota skipper butterflies, redband trout, loach minnows and spikedace to name only a few. This is to say nothing of the lethal diseases passed from cattle and sheep to rare native species, such as bighorns and mountain goats. Huge holes are been riven into the natural fabric of the West by industrial ranching and no one wants to talk about it.
Take roads for an example. There’s a nearly unanimous opinion among ecologists that roads pose one of the gravest threats to biological diversity in the American West. There are already more than 250,000 miles of ranching roads crisscrossing public lands, cutting across trout streams, elk calving grounds and grizzly habitat. And more are being bulldozed every year. Most of these roads are substandard, unplanned, and quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) eroded away, clogging the precious waters of the arid West and posing even further risks to bull trout, chinook salmon and westslope cutthroat trout.
Then there’s issue of wildlands. Quite simply, cows and sheep can go where log skidders, chokesetters and hard rock miners can’t: wilderness areas, riparian strips and other so-called natural preserves, including Great Basin National Park.
Along Came NAFTA
In 1993, former Arizona government Bruce Babbitt arrived in Washington, D.C. as Bill Clinton’s Interior Secretary. Having resigned his position as head of the League of Conservation Voters, Babbitt quickly promised his pals in the environmental movement that he would move swiftly to reform outdated and destructive practices on the federal lands over which he now had control.
Babbitt left the starting gate in February 1993 hot-to-trot, tucking into Clinton’s first budget request a scheme to reform grazing, mining and timber practices on public lands. At the time, these initiatives received a lot of adulatory press, but upon reflection it was a monumental miscalculation to invite Congress (even one controlled by Democrats) to authorize actions that Babbitt could have taken alone administratively.
The result was predictable. A posse of Western senators, led by the Montana Democrat Max Baucus, met with White House chief of staff Mack McLarty (a former energy executive) in late March of that year and demanded that the reforms, tentative as they were, be stripped from the budget. McLarty quickly assented, tossing the proposals on the political scrapheap with the other progressive casualties of Clinton’s rookie months, right alongside Lani Guinier, gays in the military and the humane treatment of Haitian refugees. All early warning signs, to anyone paying attention, that the political center was veering sharply back into the old groove on the corporate right.
At the time, Babbitt claimed ignorance of the decision to delete his public land reform package from the budget and, in fact, engaged in some very public posturing and pouting about being overruled by higher levels of the administration. The image, reinforced by a sycophantic profile in the New York Times Magazine, was of Babbitt standing tall against the despoilers of the West, only to be shot in the back by White House politicos. Yet, it turns out that Babbitt was far from innocent in this matter. Indeed, as Interior Secretary and personal confidant to Clinton, he circulated freely in the administration’s control booth. Indeed, Babbitt’s maneuvers were entirely characteristic of the politician. During his tenure at the Interior Department, Babbitt developed a distinctive pattern of behavior: initiate a cautious policy advance, retreat frantically at the first hint of opposition, then call a self-exculpating press conference to blame others (superiors, subordinates, associates and interest groups) for his own mistakes and failures. When things went wrong, Babbitt always seemed to be AWOL. Pity his assistant secretaries and agency heads, who served as Babbitt’s personal stable of scapegoats.
Duly chastened, Babbitt promised to "return to the West and listen to the people"-that is, the ranchers. He set up a series of grazing town halls held in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico and Nevada. Opponents of federal grazing practices where largely excluded from these meetings. Instead, Babbitt was exposed to the unyielding recalcitrance of Western governors and congressional potentates, who lectured Babbitt on how his timid plan would destroy the cultural equilibrium of the West.
The by-product of those Town Hall sessions was the publication of a report dubbed, Rangeland ’94. This document represented a significantly scaled back series of reforms of public land grazing practices, designed mainly to raise the BLM’s standards up to the same level as those governing Forest Service lands. The report also called for a modest hike in grazing fees.
Even so, the new proposal failed to satisfy Western ranchers, who claimed (ludicrously) that it represented a taking of their water and property rights. Western senators, Democrat and Republican, launched a filibuster against the Interior Appropriations bill aimed at crushing the new range plan. Senator Malcolm Wallop, the Wyoming Republican, threw a particularly vulgar tantrum on the senate floor, alleging that anti-grazing environmentalists planned "a cultural cleansing of Wyoming, not unlike the Serbian rape of Bosnia."
Eventually, another compromise was worked out between Babbitt, Rep. George Miller and Senator Harry Reid, in which Babbitt agreed to adopt a more limited set of reforms by late winter of 1995. The package was pulled from the bill. The filibuster was dropped and Babbitt prepared to move forward administratively.
Then along came NAFTA with Clinton short on votes and itching to bargain with anyone-and I mean anyone. Scenting blood, several Western congressmen, led Rep. Bob Smith, an Oregon Republic who owned a federal grazing permit, threatened to withdraw their support for NAFTA unless the Clinton White House agree to even further water down its range plan. Another deal was cut.
But the ranchers, the Western governors and their backers remained unmollified. They wanted a trophy, a head. "Jim Baca must go," decried Cecil Andrus, the Democratic governor of Idaho, pronouncing a political death sentence for the embattled director of the Bureau of Land Management. "He’s too aggressive and abrasive. Babbitt will never be able to gain the trust of ranchers with Baca in there."
So Babbitt gave his former friend Jim Baca the boot, then left DC in a plane for some Kissinger-like shuttle diplomacy, landing in Carson City, Nevada, Cheyenne, Wyoming and Boise, Idaho. The capitulation was total. He devised a new set of public land ranching rules, measures neatly circumcised to fit the preconditions set by the Democratic fraternity of Western governors, led by Andrus, Roy Romer of Colorado and Nevada’s Mike Sullivan. If Babbitt felt humiliated, he didn’t show it. Instead, he solicited letters from each of the governors to be included in the Interior Department press releases announcing the demise of his reform package. Listen to the words of chief instigator Andrus about Babbitt: "He came, he listened, he made changes to make it more workable in the Rocky Mountain West."
How workable? Workable enough that when the Bush administration arrive on the scene in 2001, they barely had to adjust a single component of the Babbitt plan to make it to their liking. And the changes they made were mostly for show to placate the Wise Use ultras.
How many public lands ranchers are there, you ask? Good question. For all of their political clout, you’d think the West was coppiced with them. In reality, there are only about 20,000 permittees on Forest Service and BLM lands. This is about five-tenths of one-percent of the population of the West and less than 4 percent of the population of Wyoming, the most sparsely populated state in the US. Looked at another way, they could all be comfortably corralled in four of the new maximum security prisons constructed after passage of the latest bi-partisan crime bill.
The political power of Western livestock ranchers is also totally disproportionate to their waning economic influence. Thomas Power, chair of the economics department at the University of Montana, says that "ranching, despite its colorful association with the ‘old West’, is not a dominant part of the contemporary Western economies. Ranching directly provides less than half of one percent of all the of the income received by Westerners. Ranching on federal lands is responsible for even less economic activity: One dollar out of every $2,500 of income received."
Who are these rangelords? Are they the small, family ranchers promoted by Babbitt and Bush alike as the crusty cultural icons of the American West? Sure, there are some small ranchers and a few ranching families who actually depend on the running of stock across the public range for a living. But the vast majority of grazing allotments reside with a small fraction of permittees, including some of the richest families in America, multinational corporations, regional utilities, media celebrities (such as Sam Donaldson), and several politicians.
Of course, even those small family ranches aren’t really owned by the ranchers, but by banks. The value of these ranches, most of which are mortgaged to the max, doesn’t derive from the base property (i.e., the land actually owned by the rancher), but from the exclusive access to thousands of adjacent acres of public land, the water rights and the nominal grazing fees. The public subsidies are treated as private capital.
Raise the grazing fees to market rates or enact tough regulations reducing the number cattle or sheep on a given allotment and where and when they can graze and the value of the ranch plummets, leaving the banks holding a half empty bag. Banks and financiers don’t tolerate such loses. Witness the Keating Five (three-fifths of whom were Westerners) or the fate of Jim Baca.
The Very Essence of Babbittry
So how did the best chance to reform grazing policy in the last 60 years collapse with such stunning finality, at a time when the Democrats controlled the executive branch, both houses of congress and most of the state houses in the West? The most charitable interpretation, once advanced by many diehard Babbitt boosters, had the Interior Secretary playing something of a confidence game on the Westerner governors. The loosely constructed theory goes like this: Babbitt really believed in the fundamental reform of Western public land policy, but he caved in to commercial interests in the early days of Clinton-time in order to enact more sweeping changes in Clinton’s second term, when the administration would be less vulnerable politically. Under this scenario, a lame duck presidency was to have been Babbitt’s ticket back to environmental redemption.
Of course, that theory went bust pretty quick. The Democrats lost control of the House, then the Senate. The Clinton administration, following the political charts of Dick Morris, swerved even farther the right, making a string of deals with the Gingrich gang and publicly betraying the aspirations of the White House’s most ardent supporters. Grazing reform was a dead issue.
Babbitt, whose own family owns large ranches in Arizona, fit the profile of another Western character family to readers of Mark Twain: the con man. Babbitt survived through eight years of Clinton time because he was able to run the same confidence on the same collection of dupes, over and over again: conflict-aversive conservationists and an eclectic collection of neo-liberals, devout communitarians, and social idealists, who were willing to suspend their disbelief in the fervent hope that meaningful dialogue with good ranchers could finally engineer a better future for the American West. Babbitt cynically played to these folks’ inbred longing for a return to an Age of Innocence, where a kind of rural primitivism will prevail and the pastoral West will be lovingly cared for by the enlightened conservationists and small rancher, a place where the New Forestry really is sustainable and the obligatory forms of mining are truly benign. Babbitt, of course, knew this was bullshit. His victims, though, continue pursue these romantic fantasies.
But Babbitt, more than any Interior Secretary since fellow Arizonan Stuart Udall, was an expert at finding soft spots and exploiting them. He relentlessly evoked the cherished cliché of the Western rancher as a working model of ecological sensitivity, a characterization that I am certainly far from alone in finding particularly grating. By what distorted measure is the preservation of the culture of Western ranching deemed a public value? Any serious historian of the West will explain that ranching is basically a kind of internal colonialism, a way to stake a claim on the land, first as a means to dispossess and exterminate Native peoples, then as a tool to evict poor Hispanics across the Southwest, and finally as a way to exert and maintain private rights over the public commons.
Let’s face it, public lands ranching is a peculiarly American form of social welfare. To qualify, you just need to get yourself a base ranch adjacent to some the most scenic landscapes in North America. Many ranchers came by their properties through primogeniture, a quaint medieval custom still common throughout much of the rural West. If you’re a second son, a daughter or a latecomer, don’t despair: you can simply buy a ranch with a grazing permit, like billionaire potato king JR Simplot did. It’s easy. No background checks or means-testing required. A million bucks should get you started.
Rest assured, your public subsidies are guaranteed-by senate filibuster if necessary. Ranching subsidies are an untouchable form of welfare, right up there with the depletion allowance and the F-22 fighter. And guess what? It’s guilt free. Nobody complains that your subsidies came at the expense of Headstart or aid to mothers with dependent children. Or that you take your profits from the subsidies and spend it on a case of Jack Daniels, a chunk of crystal meth, a night at the Mustang Ranch, a week at the roulette tables in Reno-or donate it all to Operation Rescue or the Sahara Club. (The most outlandish fables about profligate welfare queens have nothing on the average slob rancher.) Hell, do it right and somebody might even promote you as a cultural hero, a damn fine roll model for future generations.
The Western ranching fraternity is more homogenous than the Royal Order of the Moose: landed, white, male and politically conservative to a reactionary and vicious degree. It is not culturally, ethnically or racially representative of America and never has been. Shouldn’t there be equal access to this federal grazing largesse, these hundreds of millions in annual subsidies to well-off white geezers? A creative litigator might be able to demonstrate that federal grazing policies violate the Civil Rights Act.
Strip away the Stetsons, bolo ties, and rattlesnake-skin boots, why should we view Western ranchers differently than the tobacco farmers of the Southeast? And what about their political benefactors? Is there are fundamental difference between, say, Max Baucus and Saxby Chambliss? Robert Bennett and Trent Lott? (Okay, Lott and Baucus have fewer bad hair days.) All annually raid the federal treasury to sustain industries that degrade the environment, ravage the public health and enervate the economy. Federal tobacco subsidies about to about $100 million a year; grazing subsidies may exceed a billion a year. No wonder there’s so little congressional support for a single-payer health care system: passage of such a plan might actually force the Cow and Cigarette Caucus to choose between the health of the citizenry and their allegiance to political porkbarrel.
Some argue that the rancher is rooted to place, the he loves the land, holds a unique reverence for its contours, beauty, rhythms. The rancher, they say, is one of Wallace Stegner’s "stickers," not an itinerant booster or commercial migrant, like the cut-and-run logger. He doesn’t leave behind radioactive tailings piles or slopes of stumps in his wake, but gently tends and grooms the landscape, improving Nature’s defects, year after year, generation after generation.
But take away the subsidies, the nearly free forage, the roads, the even cheaper water that magically appears from nowhere in the middle of the high desert, the tax breaks, predator control, abeyances from environmental standards and disproportionate political clout when any thing else goes against him, such as drought, rangefires, bad investments. Then charge them for the gruesome externalities of their "avocation" and then see how many stick around for the hardscrabble lifestyle that remains. Federal subsidies and political protection are the velcro for most of these guys, not the view of the Wind River Range. Still the myths persist, proving, perhaps, that the suspension of disbelief was the very essence of Babbittry.
A Larkspur Rebellion
In the end, the Clinton administration’s decision not pursue real reform of the management of Western rangelands represents one of the most glaring failures in a decade filled with similar capitulations to those who howled against any meager restraint on their freedom to exploit. Clinton could have crushed the grazing lobby if he wanted to-and no group deserved to be crushed more than the rangelords of the West. But they backed down. And that was that. Yes, Babbitt has much to answer for, but not as much as the environmental groups that went along for the ride with him.
Twelve years down the road of compromise, where are the big greens? Grazing, even though it remains the dominate and most destructive use of the public estate, is scarcely on the radar screen of the national environmental lobby-no doubt, because it’s hard to fundraise around. When they have managed to mention the topic, it’s been to call for a hike in grazing fees. They have largely avoided the issue of land abuse caused by livestock grazing. The Sierra Club, for example, finds it difficult to call for an end to grazing wilderness areas and actually supported the inclusion of grazing allotments in Great Basin National Park. Grazing reform, many green lobbyists argue, simply can’t be marketed to the American public. It lacks the visceral imagery of clearcut forests or oil wells sprouting up along the Rocky Mountain front.
Motivated mainly by social and community concerns, some local conservation groups, such as the High Country Citizens Alliance, continue to cling to the consensus approach, pleading with cattlemen to simply improve poor grazing practices rather than seeking the removal of cows and sheep from degraded and/or ecologically fragile lands or grizzly habitat.
Yet, there is some cause for hope. There’s something of a rebellion taking root in the Interior West, where a growing contingent of hardcore environmentalists, many of them unaligned with any big green group, are calling for radical changes in federal rangeland policy: the end of subsidies, the end of predator control, the end of livestock grazing on public lands altogether. Call it the Larkspur Rebellion, larkspur being a native plant poisonous to cattle.
These anti-grazing militants are the outsiders of the environmental movement: Clarke Abbey and Susan Schock, Pat Wolff and Tom Skeele, Lynn Jacobs and Michael Robinson, George Wuerthner and Kathy Myron. Their boots are muddy from fieldwork and they’ve rarely, if ever, been invited into corporate headquarters of the National Audubon Society or the NRDC. They were among the first to see through the Clinton administration’s attempts to greenwash its public land policies. They fought the Bush administration from the first day. The repeated betrayals over the years by politicians and environmental big wigs have merely strengthened their resolve to resist token reforms and to advocate real change. Reform won’t work. There’s only one real answer left. Leave the land alone. Let it heal itself.
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon.