Imagine the West's public lands without fences, without stock tanks, without wells and pipelines. And with fewer roads.
Imagine pubic lands where bison, wild horses, ground-nesting birds like sage grouse, and large carnivores can roam free of conflicts with people who financially profit from these lands.
Imagine these lands with lush streamside grasses, forbs, and trees--alder, willow, and cottonwood. Trees filled with songbirds. Trees lining clear, deep streams teaming with large numbers of healthy fish.
And imagine some implications of these changes: over time fewer roads would mean fewer weeds. Fewer weeds, less need for herbicides. Less herbicide, less poisoning of stream invertebrates, and less bioaccumulation in the fish that eat them.
Fewer fences would mean less hindrance to movement of deer and antelope. And less predation on sage grouse, as the fences provide convenient perches for raptors that prey on nests and young birds.
Less extraction of groundwater would mean a higher water table. Springs and streams currently dry may again support aquatic life.
For communities adjacent to public lands, imagine greater economic opportunity and diversity, particularly in businesses related to recreation, but extending to many providers of goods and services.
These benefits, and many more, would emerge if we did just one thing--reduce the presence of ranching on public lands. And I'm not talking just about making livestock grazing less harmful. Ranching really must be reduced, because much of ranching's harm is inherent in its essential infrastructure and practices--fencing, the building and use of roads, the extraction of water, the alteration of fire regimes, even the truncation of the food web.
How might we begin to reduce ranching in a way that simultaneously benefits the environment, the taxpayer, rural communities, and even ranchers? The means are already at hand in the form of legislation introduced last November by Congressman Adam Smith (WA-9). Known as the Rural Economic Vitalization Act or REVA (rhymes with "Reba"), this bill would accomplish these objectives in a manner that is timely, cost effective, and agreeable to everyone involved.
The legislation is really very simple. It transfers a certain authority from the U.S. government to ranchers who hold federal grazing permits--specifically, the authority to direct the government to both retire one's permit and to permanently close the associated grazing allotment. That authority is needed because the government is usually too intimidated by the "grazing lobby" to permanently close a grazing allotment even under the most dire environmental conditions.
Why might a rancher choose to take such an action? In most cases, because someone has offered him money, and because the rancher has concluded that for him it makes sense to receive value for his grazing permit without the need to sell his base property.
Since the late 1990s, private financial donors have teamed up with ranchers to retire grazing permits at several locations--Great Basin National Park, the Mojave Preserve, the Greater Yellowstone region, and Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument among them. At this time, several million dollars are available for permit retirement in the Great Basin. REVA's enactment would surely bring even more private funding to the table, especially in regions where there are high-profile conflicts between ranching and wildlife--conflicts that negatively impact birds, fish, wolves and other "problem" animals.
Reasons why a rancher would accept money for his grazing permit will be as varied as the people involved. Frequently, he'll want to retire or to restructure his business. Perhaps prolonged drought has greatly reduced the income producing value of his grazing permit.
As ranchers would begin to cash in their permits, the numerous advantages of the legislation would become obvious. For the taxpayer, government overruns of the federal grazing program would decrease. By the government's own admission, this program is a perennial money loser that spends six dollars for every dollar brought in through grazing fees. And these are just for the direct costs of managing grazing on federal lands. When indirect costs are included, the ratio of expenditures to income is more like twenty to one.
Then there are economic benefits to rural communities. In fact, the legislation is titled the "Rural Economic Vitalization Act" specifically because of its potential, not just to inject capital into a community through funding received by a rancher for his grazing permit, but to vitalize a variety of rural businesses.
I'll give you a few examples of what we might expect. In the Central Winter Ecosystem Management Area on Arizona's Kaibab Plateau, the current hunting level for mule deer produces an annual economic benefit of $922,604 compared to $45,988 for livestock grazing.
Because hunter demand outstrips availability of deer tags, reduced ranching that would allow more forage for deer production would increase economic benefit to the region.
Reducing the forage consumed by cattle in California's X5 hunting zones would allow deer populations to increase from 5,200 animals to 15,000 animals, with the resulting economic benefit increasing from 16-times to 54-times current management'even further when including other game species as well as nongame wildlife values that would benefit from reduced cattle grazing.
Economic benefits that would accrue from recreational fishing on streams restored through reduction of livestock grazing in California's Golden Trout Wilderness are conservatively estimated at between $148,000 and $713,000 annually, while current economic benefits from livestock grazing are estimated at only $35,000.
Removing cattle from Arizona's San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (NCA) in 1987, by 1991 led to increased density of herbaceous vegetation by four- to six-fold in riparian and mesquite grassland communities. Of 61 bird species studied, mean detections per kilometer increased for 42 species and decreased for 19 (species commonly found outside of riparian zones such as desert-scrub species and cavity nesters). The number of individuals of all avian species detected on surveys increased from 103/kilometer to 221/kilometer. Annual non-resident birder visitation to the San Pedro NCA during 2000-2001 was estimated at 25,194, producing direct expenditures of $9.64 million and total economic output of $16.2 million.
As riparian areas and uplands recover their productivity after removal of livestock, opportunities such as these will arise throughout the West. Today's public lands ranchers can be among the people who will benefit from these opportunities, if only they have the courage to move beyond the limitations of their current profession.
Some public lands ranchers already have such a vision. A study from 2006 found that about 50 percent of Nevada's public lands ranchers would cash in their grazing permits for the right price. Why then isn't there a groundswell of ranchers in support of legislation that facilitates permit retirement? In large part we need look no further than the ranching organizations that oppose this legislation. As best that I can determine, their position reflects the preference of large ranchers, which in this regard is at odds with the best interest of small ranchers--large ranchers preferring to acquire small ranches at low cost rather than to cash in their own permits at this time. And what better way to improve one's chance of acquiring a small ranch at low cost than to curtail the options of the person selling one?
But although neglectful of the greedy, the Rural Economic Vitalization Act holds the promise of boosting the West's broad economy through payments to ranchers and by initiating the restoration of that region's natural heritage.
And those of you who enjoy the sight of our western landscapes populated by cattle need not fear that even the most enthusiastic application of this legislation would lead to their disappearance. More than 75 percent of western ranchers run cattle only on private land. Perhaps a little less competition from highly-subsidized public lands ranchers would improve their bottom line as well.
Note: view a footnoted version of this article that, among other things, explains the historical context of its title.