The Flawed Economics of Public Lands Grazing: the Case of Monroe Mountain

The Richfield Ranger District of the Fish Lake National Forest in Utah released its draft reauthorization for grazing the Southern Monroe Mountain allotments in Sevier and Piute Counties.

The economic analysis of its reauthorization document is typical of many Forest Service and BLM grazing decisions, whereby the agency emphasizes livestock grazing as an economically important component of rural economies by using flawed assumptions. It also justifies the reauthorization of grazing based on “custom and culture”, or the idea that ranching is important to the local sense of community.

Here’s is how one must “think” about such economic analysis.

The economic analysis identifies that these rural counties have higher poverty rates than other parts of Utah which is consistent with the situation across the West.

Of the various economic sectors in the region, agricultural wages and incomes are substantially lower than other economic sectors.  In 2019, the average wage for animal livestock production was $30,814 compared to other sectors of the local economy like financial services at $48,372, Manufacturing at $41,008, and government at $38,134. Thus, of all the major economic sectors, animal agriculture contributes to the least income of any economic activity.

Of additional importance is that from 2001 to 2019, the three industry sectors that added the newest jobs were transportation and warehousing (352 new jobs), government (314 new jobs), and health care and social assistance (297 new jobs). During the same period, farm employment shrank by 14.3 percent.

This is important because, like most of the West, the economic foundation of even this rural area is shifting from resource extraction or a resource colony to secondary and tertiary economic sources.

The FS analysis suggests farm employment is important to these counties accounting for a quarter of the employment in the area. But here is how the economic analysis biases distort the real contribution of ranching.

First, “farm” includes all forms of agriculture from growing turkeys to producing nursery plants. The actual contribution of “animal agriculture” to this total is significantly less.

In the two-county area, there were 283 beef and cattle ranching operations or 36% of the farm operations. So when the FS suggests that Farm operations contribute to nearly a quarter of the jobs in the region, the contribution from cattle ranching is approximately a third of this 25% attributed to the farm sector.

Another bias is that combining the contribution of farming of both counties distorts and exaggerates the total. Sevier County which has a much higher population (approximately 25,000) and a more diverse economy only gets 7% of its income from farms. However, Piute County with only 1400 residents gets a greater amount of its income from agriculture. When these two counties are combined, it increases the “percentage” of income from farms.

Another distortion is that a high percentage of ranching operations get the bulk of their income from other income sources. Rather than rural communities depending on ranching to provide for the economic base as is often asserted, it is the economic opportunities outside of ranching that help sustain ranching.

It is the jobs held by family members in other areas of the economy that provides much of the income for ranching operations. Jobs and income driving a school bus, or working in a grocery store, or even part-time work driving a snowplow in winter, often exceeds the income from ranching.

Furthermore, not all livestock operations depend on public lands for cattle forage.  And even among those ranchers who do use public lands for grazing of their animals, it is a seasonal contribution. So the total contribution of public lands to the overall economic foundation of the two-county region is much, much smaller than the percentage of total ranching operations. Across the West, federal grazing allotments contribute to less than 0.1% of the income in the region (Thomas Power Welfare Ranching 2002).

I can’t give you the percentage contribution of public lands grazing in this part of Utah because the FS analysis fails to make this distinction—for obvious reasons. However, in most parts of the West, the forage on public lands makes up less than 1% of the contribution to income.

Another important part of any economic analysis are not just the presumed benefits (which in this case are grossly exaggerated) but the administrative costs to the taxpayer of continued public lands grazing.

For instance, the cost of managing grazing livestock is minimized. The salary of range conservationists, the gasoline and trucks used by range managers, and even the electricity, heat, and office space used by agency personnel is not considered a “cost” of livestock grazing.

And there are the salaries and associated costs of other specialists who contribute to any grazing analysis including the economist who put together the economic section of the Draft EIS, much less hydrologists, wildlife biologist, recreation specialists, and others who are consulted about any grazing operations.

One of the multiple ways that the agencies “minimize” the damage from livestock operations is by increased “range improvements” such as the construction of more fences, pipelines, spring developments, and roads—all of which should actually be termed range degradation activities. No matter what they are called, ranchers typically do not pay a fraction of these costs for these developments which are borne by the public. None of these developments would be needed if livestock grazing were terminated.

It must be recognized that the fees (currently $1.35 a month to graze cow and calf) paid by livestock operators don’t come close to covering the government’s (taxpayer) costs to administer grazing allotments. You would be hard-pressed to feed a hamster for $1.35 month.

Another cost that is ignored is the cost of producing the draft EIS which is yet another “cost” that taxpayers must bear to facilitate the private use of public resources for personal profit.

Proponents of livestock grazing often counter by saying the public using campgrounds or hiking, fishing, or otherwise using public lands don’t pay the full costs either. But this ignores the fact that ranching is a private business using public resources for individual profit.

Beyond the lack of incorporating the real administrative costs of livestock grazing, the FS fails to consider that grazing is not just a positive contribution to the local economy, but it also harms other economic sectors. For instance, grazing in riparian areas damages wildlife habitat. These riparian areas are critical for songbirds, fisheries, and other wildlife. Wildlife watching is a growing and important economic activity around the West, so to some extent, continued livestock grazing harms these other economic sectors—and they are the sectors that growing in the local economy.

Damage to ecological function, wildlife habitat, watersheds, soils and other public lands value are costs are externalized to the public and land.

For example, when riparian areas are damaged by cattle grazing, it can lead to greater flooding, erosion, and sedimentation in streams that impacts fish and aquatic ecosystems. This cost is not included in the economic analysis.

Cattle socially displace native herbivores like elk. When elk are forced to graze in other areas of the forest, they may be exposed to greater predation or lower quality forage which in turn reduces the overall population of elk. This loss affects wildlife viewing, hunting and other parts of the local economy.

There is also forage competition between native herbivores and domestic livestock. The majority of forage on many allotments is assigned to livestock, which means there is less vegetation and hiding cover for everything from ground squirrels and butterflies to deer and elk.

There is water pollution from livestock is a cost that the agency fails to consider as well as the spread of weeds as a result of livestock operations. These are all “costs” that the public must shoulder to reserve or simply accept as part of the degraded landscape.

The Forest Service suggests ranching connects people to “traditional lands and heritage” to justify continued livestock grazing on public lands. Obviously, this has little to do with pure economics.

However, even more importantly, it ignores the fact that “traditional” activities like ranching harm other sectors of the economy.

The Richfield Range District uses the old “condos vs cows” argument to suggest that if grazing on public lands were curtailed, it would lead to the conversion of private lands to other uses like subdivisions.

I have dealt extensively with the flaw in this logic, but briefly what drives subdivisions is the presence of amenities like ski resorts, educational opportunities, transportation (airports and interstates), and economic opportunities. If subsidizing agriculture were a good conservation strategy, we would not be seeing any subdivisions around the West since nearly all development occurs on lands previously used for agriculture.

Most of the land being subdivided does not rely on public lands forage.

All one has to do is look at California which has some of the most valuable agricultural lands in the country and also has tremendous growth of subdivisions to realize that subsidizing agriculture or minimizing its harmful environmental impacts is a poor conservation strategy. You can read more about this controversy at this link.

Like so many economic analyses, the Richfield Ranger District fails to consider the real costs to the public of continuing livestock grazing on these lands and exaggerates the economic benefits to the local economy while minimizing the costs to taxpayers.

It is an example of the moniker SCPP–socializing the costs and privatizing the profits.

There are many other flaws in the Draft EIS, and should you wish to comment before Feb. 7th, here’s the district ranger’s address.  Please support the climate alternative 3.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy