All Disquieted on the Western Front

Every year that I am able I pay a visit to Big Sur, California, one of my favorite places since I was very small. I love the scenic drive up the rugged coast on the winding WPA-era highway One through the land where the mountains meet the sea. You've seen it in car commercials, and the famous chase scene from North by Northwest, and the picture in your mind, no doubt, is of the azure Pacific waters glistening in the sun as waves lap the rocky coast line below sloping Emerald meadows. As a kid I took all of this for granted, but I gradually came to realize that the ribbon of highway isn't the only feature there that is foreign to the natural landscape. The fact is that those brilliant swaths of Green shouldn't be there – and they wouldn't be were it not for the small herds of cows that regularly scour the fenced-in private ranches, allowing grasses to flourish where once there were coastal prairies and thickets of woods. The fact is that the Big Sur we have all seen in pictures and post cards for as long as we can remember is, in reality, a severely altered landscape, some of whose most iconic features are the result of large scale human-caused damage. In that sense, Big Sur, as we know it, is a perfect metaphor for the much larger environmental crisis facing the American prairies of the South and MidWest , and the way we have grown to accept the destructive agricultural practice known as “ranching” as an immutable facet of the American identity.
As the motley hoard of rogue ranchers in cheap Stetsons, camo-Carharts and guns inhabit an unguarded bird sanctuary in rural Oregon, net-savvy citizens have been quick to point out the obvious double-standard with regard to the way law enforcement has handled the secessionist stand-off as opposed to the violent crackdowns meted out in Ferguson or Baltimore, New York, and Minneapolis in response to Black Lives Matter protests. We have ridiculed these inarticulate Marlboro men with apt monikers like “Y'all Queda”, and “Vanilla Isis”. I've called them “Bundymentalists”, owing to the fact that their chief instigators are members of the Bundy clan from Nevada, infamous for an earlier armed stand-off sparked by Federal officials attempts to collect more than a Million dollars in delinquent cattle-grazing fees owed by the self-appointed patron saint of illegal grazing, Cliven Bundy. Folks have observed that the Bundy's, and, indeed a great many cattle ranchers, are dependent on subsidies from the very same government the Bundy Bunch and their fan club so vehemently decry. Ranchers whose properties abut Federal lands depend on being able to graze their cattle on public acreage in accordance with leases they obtain from the Bureau of Land Management. But the Bundy's want to enjoy this privilege without having to pay for it, and that, indeed, is the message they've brought to Oregon.
Under the banner of “returning the land” the Bundy's and other Libertarian extremists would like to see all Federal lands opened up to private commercial exploitation – not just by ranchers, but by loggers and drillers, and surface miners as well. And there is a danger in being too cavalier in dismissing the Bundy Bunch antics in Oregon too flippantly, as they are, in fact, one facet ( albeit a tragically comical one) of a larger and more ominous threat. The Bundy's, perhaps unwittingly, are philosophically allied with every extractive or polluting industry that seeks immunity for laws that protect the commons. Where the Bundy's have their paltry snacks and rifles, fuzzy mittens and even fuzzier rhetoric, the mining giants and oil barons have powerful lobbies and bottomless pockets. There may be no chance that the Malheur nature preserve in Oregon will be ceded to state control ( a strategy that would surely result in cash-strapped states selling or leasing such lands to private interests) there IS a chance that a Republican-controlled Congress might approve the proposed mining operations in or around the Grand Canyon. Less than two years ago Arizona Senator John McCain added a rider to a budget bill that will allow a rare and pristine publicly-owned wilderness area East of Phoenix to become the site of one of the world's largest open-pit Copper mines. *Open-pit mining is like Mountain Top Removal in reverse. Instead of blowing up the top halves of mountains to get at thin seams of Coal, giant holes are dug, the size of inverted mountains to get at the toxic ores deep below. And, just as the Oregon preserve is the ancestral land of the Paiutes, who still have a nominal claim there, the Oak Flats region in Arizona is shared by several bands of the Dine and Apache people, many of whom live just a few miles away on the San Carlos reservation. For many Native Americans mining leases and grazing contracts on federally managed properties consecrate the theft of those lands from their original inhabitants and stewards. Indeed, the 860 acre Malheur preserve is all that remains of the original Malheur reservation which once spanned 1.5 Million acres.
But what of the ranchers' claims? After all, many of them have held that profession for generations. It's a way of life, and it's a living. No one disputes that it takes a lot of work to operate a ranch, and some impressively long hours, too. And anyone who has had dealings with the Bureau of Land Management knows that the traditionally industry-friendly agency can be heavy-handed and downright obtuse. The BLM was created in 1946 by an executive action by President Truman. It's “mixed-use” mandate was a refinement of the more open-ended grazing policies created more than a decade earlier under the Taylor Grazing Act. The Grazing act itself was intended as a necessary stop-gap to prevent federal lands from being completely ruined by over-grazing as Western ranchers replaced the great Buffalo herds with their European imports. Even in 1934 it was abundantly evident that ranching (grazing vast numbers of cattle) was degrading the land. The Grazing act divided Federal lands adjacent to private ranches in to grazing alotments and placed limits on the number of cattle allowed on the leased land and the duration of their permitted occupancy. A small per-head fee was imposed, but , thanks to pressure from the ranching industry, funding was cut, making enforcement nearly impossible. With the creation of the BLM, Timber and Minerals were added to the agency's purview, and, in some places, grazing alotments were truncated to make room for mines and drilling. A common criticism of the BLM is that it appears to exist primarily to facilitate commercial access to Federal lands (much like many state agencies such as the Ohio Department of Natural Resources which permits fracking and waste disposal wells in state parks, and administers clear-cuts in Ohio's remaining public forests). But that is not the ranchers' beef. The Bundy's vision, to remove all federal authority from these public lands, would produce a veritable gold-rush of ranchers, miners, and drillers alike, surpassing the level of such activities traditionally allowed by the BLM.

The BLM's mandate has shifted, however, in response to the dwindling percentage of natural habitat. Regulations on grazing have tightened, somewhat, as the BLM slowly shifts its focus toward conservation, and grazing fees have increased, provoking some ranchers to complain that they are being driven out of business. Well good. Yes, I said it. It is high time that we take a hard critical look at ranching and its impacts.

There's a lengthy article circulating from a blog called “The American Conservative” that chronicles the history of the conflict in Oregon leading up to the 2016 standoff. It portrays the area's first ranchers, dating back to the early 1900's as defenders of the wilderness. The state government in Oregon, had, indeed encouraged commercial and agricultural development in some horridly ruinous ways, allowing lakes and streams to be drained and forests razed for cropfields. The scene of the occupation, the Malhuer Nature Preserve, may have suffered such a fate were it not for the objections of ranchers who depended on its watershed to irrigate their herds. The article claims, however, that the ranchers, who converted wetlands to dry grazing grounds previously made the place fertile and increased wildlife abundance. The article refers to several “secret public documents” that allegedly report increases in wildlife diversity on their ranches over and above the levels of diversity observed in the preserves. At first glance the article appears scholarly, even if its unsubstantiated conclusions seem rather improbable. More recent and not-so-secret documents paint a vastly different picture.

Observations and measurements of ranching's destructive impacts date back more than a century, but the dynamics of that impact play out on a landscape that is already altered. Ranching has typically followed logging and subsequent short-term cultivation. Once a healthy forest is destroyed by logging, the newly cleared land is exploited for crop production. Without the renewal of nutrients the forest creates, however, the land is quickly exhausted as the soil is depleted. Left fallow, opportunistic native grasses re-colonize, making the land attractive for grazing. Grazing, however prevents the natural succession of plants, creating a cycle of regeneration and attrition that perpetuates grassland ecoculture and precludes the forest from re-establishing itself. Animal and plant species alike that previously inhabited forests are permanently displaced and the prairie-like ecosystem that replaces them is not balanced or sustainable. When cattle suppress taller native plants less cover is provided for prey species, which, in turn, leads to a surge in predator populations. Ranchers then hunt the predators – some to extinction, or to the brink of it. Species interdependency becomes so disrupted that species like Prairie Dogs, Ferrets, Tortoises, and ground-nesting birds are decimated, while hares and rabbits proliferate disproportionately. A study by researchers at Oregon State University in Corvalis in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Fish and Wildlife and published in the journal Environmental Management focused on a region in Oregon not far from the Malheur refuge. It showed that once ranching was no longer allowed in the study area for a period of 20 years, native grasses and chaparral and early succession trees in riparian corridors rebounded, with increases in some grasses approaching 400% .
Soil errosion is another by-product of grazing. With a more diverse system of flora suppressed. the land loses its capacity to retain rain water. Rivers and streams become choked with silt and grow shallower and broader, while falling lower below the surrounding grade when seasonal torrents create higher-than-normal flow rates. The particular grasses and trees, like Willows that are ideally suited to riparian corridors suffer disproportionate decline as cows tend to congregate in those areas as well, resulting in less erosion control along the banks Nitrogen-rich manure enters the waterways, disrupting aquatic life there as well. Conservation biologist Thomas Fleischner , in his landmark 1994 report titled Ecological Costs of Livestock Grazing in Western North America summarized the ecological impact of cattle grazing, as causing;
“(1) Alteration of species composition of communities, including decreases in density and biomass of individual species. Reduction of species richness, and changing community organization.
(2) Disruption of ecosystem functioning, including interference in nutrient cycling and ecological succession.
(3) Alteration of ecosystem structure, including changing vegetation stratification, contributing to soil erosion and decreasing availability of water to biotic communities.

The 2016 Oregon standoff , ironically, was in response to the sentencing of two local ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond for two separate acts of arson, one of which burned 139 acres of the preserve. The Hammonds have claimed, variously, that they were using fire to eradicate invasive plant species, or to create a fire break to stop the advance of an encroaching forest fire. But numerous studies have shown that cattle grazing actually increases the intensity , and thus the destructiveness of fires in surrounding forest lands by suppressing fires in the adjacent prairies. A report from the Oregon Natural Desert Association, a conservation group working to increase environmental protections on public lands notes that many forest ecosystems depend on frequent low-intensity fires to prevent the over-growth of trees and woodlands brush species. Forests that are thick with undergrowth, sometimes called “doghair thickets” are susceptible to fires that burn longer and hotter than normal, and which can thus threaten larger trees. Federal agencies have responded with a strategy of “controlled burns”, with mixed success, but these isolated, deliberately set fires occasionally become uncontrolled, like the one in Ohio's Shawnee State Forest where a 233 acre prescribed burn by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources expanded to consume nearly 3,000 acres.

With the damaging effects of cattle grazing being so well documented for so long, one may wonder why the practice is still allowed on public lands. The Bureau of Land Management allows grazing on around 155 Million acres out of the 247 Million acres it manages, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior. This represents just under 20,000 grazing leases. The fees charged by the BLM, based on each month of grazing for an individual cow and calf-pair, or an equivalent grouping of sheep, are far below the costs of maintaining those animals on private lands, thus incentivizing ranchers, according to Interior Department fiscal year reports, to utilize leased public lands more often and more intensively than private lands. The Congressional Accounting office reports, however, that the cost to the public of BLM grazing leases in 2005 was $144 Million, while revenues from those leases amounted to just $21 Million. That's a $123 Million public subsidy to the ranchers, and it does not take in to account the cost of environmental remediation, if such a program were to be initiated. The General Accounting Office reports also show a steady decrease in grazing fee rates which, in 2012 were less than 25% of the rate assessed in 1952. Furthermore, the total number of cows grazed on public lands represents a tiny fraction of the over-all number of cattle raised annually in the U.S. In 2004 there were only 27,000 ranchers with federal grazing leases (3% of the total number of ranchers), and that number has steadily declined over the last decade. Their output accounts for less than 3% of the total amount of beef generated by U.S. producers. The Department of the Interior estimates that only about 17,000 jobs may be directly attributable to grazing on public lands whereas there are close to 400,000 people employed in the service of recreational and other uses of public lands, not including extractive industries.

There have been efforts to end grazing on public lands. Federal recognition of threatened species such as the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher under the Endangered Species Act has forced changes in grazing policies, reducing grazing allotments on lands managed by both the BLM and the U.S. Forrest Service. Researchers at the University of Oregon in Corvalis published a report in 2012 citing the compounding effects of climate change on the damage done by grazing, which called for massive reductions in grazing leases, and even hinted at their elimination altogether. In 2003 a group of Arizona environmentalists, and even some cattle ranchers brought a proposal to Congress to create a Federal program to buy-out grazing leases, thus compensating ranchers in exchange for the leases being permanently retired. In New Mexico, environmentalists managed to buy a grazing lease so as to assure that little to no grazing would occur on one particular 550 acre plot. Even as early as 1993, a survey by Utah State University professor Mark Brunson showed public sentiment somewhat in favor of ending all grazing on public lands.

But if public support for cattle ranching seems slow to wither, it may be due to decades of romanticizing of the profession by Hollywood which has, since the early days of film portrayed the rancher as the epitome of rugged (white) individualism and tireless work ethic. Though ranchers have always been a tiny fraction of the working population, their larger-than-life presence in the iconographic panorama of American popular culture has assured them permanency as a personification of (white) national identity. The Bundy ranch stand-off two years ago may have created a crack in that Rushmoric mantle, as the world saw a decidedly different picture of ranchers, or at least their most vocal sub-set. Cliven Bundy's own public statements, which conveyed no small measure of disdain toward people of color, and the addition of semi-organized white supremacists to his bunkered brigade highlighted both the monochromatic nature of the ranching profession as well as the yersteryear political persuasions of some of those who practice it. Jump ahead to the 2016 stand-off where the Younger-Bundies and their allies have been seen coming and going from the Malheur preseve in their pickup trucks sporting signs that read “No BLM” Presumably they refer to the government bureau, but on the long drive home to Nebraska or Texas or Arizona they'll likely pass through parts where the acronym stands for the latest iteration of the civil rights movement. The Bundy clan's antics have brought to light their financial dependency on the government's largesse – yet another thing they have in common with the oil, gas , timber and coal industries, This comes at a time when a cavalcade of candidates for state and national office are drumming up resentment over government programs that benefit anyone but the wealthiest elites. The rough-and-tumble self-sufficient riders of the range may soon be seen as Western welfare whiners whose bumbling statements to the press sound more like hyperbole than hyper-masculinity.

There is, of course, a minority of ranchers who do practice some level of stewardship, as an article in this month's Atlantic reveals, but global demand for meat and dairy are also on the decline. The USDA, in their December 2015 Livestock , Dairy and Poultry Outlook report projects a decline of 8% in the price of beef in 2016 over the previous year's value, so the Bundy's, in their quest for national attention, may have just given themselves, and their whole chosen profession a bit of a shiner, turning their own anti-government and anti-conservation backlash to whiplash, hastening the retirement not only of subsidized grazing but of the manufactured mystique that has served as their principle asset and justification. So as the Sons of Bundy are silhouetted by the setting sun, and riding tall in the saddle grows long in the tooth the world may welcome an era of healing over herding, no longer at the mercy of hoofed locusts and calloused cowboys gone silly with greed.
Evan Davis