Our public lands could be so much better. So easily. But we manage them in an upside down fashion.
Instead of managing the land for its intrinsic value as a natural landscape for the benefit of the vast majority of the public whom owns the land, we manage them for a noisy, tiny, belligerent, special interest group. The majority of us end up financing the degradation of our own lands. It is dumb of us. We don’t need to continue.
The main threat to the health of the land in the West, hard to see although it is everywhere, is public lands ranching. Nothing does more damage to public lands than public lands ranching.
In Utah, as is typical in arid western states, agriculture is less than one percent of the economy. Ranching is less than half of agriculture and public land ranching is only a small portion of ranching. Yet it effects and degrades nearly 65% of the land in the state. Public lands ranching could not continue without subsidy. We would not miss it economically if we stopped, but the land would be much improved.
Mexican gray wolf (el lobo)
For instance, we upside downers subsidize eradication of the predators that are necessary to keep the land in balance. Recently, in late May 2018, Craig Thiessen, a public land rancher in New Mexico, pleaded guilty to purposefully killing a collared Mexican gray wolf. He must have laughed as he was ordered to pay $2,300 in restitution. From 1995 through 2016 Thiessen received subsidy payments totaling $387,788 from you and me in order for him to continue to desecrate public land as his cherished way of life. Many ranchers like Thiessen like their cowboy hatted image of themselves out on the range but where they make their living is hat in hand at the florescent lit subsidy welfare offices of the federal government. Public lands ranchers could not wreck the place without us.
Mexican gray wolves narrowly escaped extinction with the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 and their placement on the list of endangered species in 1976. At the Rewilding Institute wildlife ecologist David Parsons writes:
As European settlers moved west with their large herds of livestock beginning in the late 1800s, two problems occurred simultaneously to permanently alter our Southwestern ecosystems. Unregulated hunting for sport and markets, and apparently just for the hell of it, decimated wildlife populations. And unregulated grazing by cattle and sheep degraded fragile grasslands and riparian ecosystems. Watersheds were laid bare and erosion was unleashed with a vengeance blighting landscapes to a condition that the ecologically unenlightened now perceive as the normal “look” of the West.
Early western cattle barons were politically connected, and convinced Congress to pass legislation to establish a federal agency in 1915 with a mission of eradicating large predators from the land.
The land was stripped down and degraded to what today we accept as normal. Fewer than a dozen wolves remained at one point. They were trapped and bred in captivity or the species would be extinct. But their survival remains tenuous. The wolves today are managed for political reasons, not, as required by law, for scientific ones. There are not enough wolves out there yet to create a sustainable, genetically diverse population. Unscrupulous cowboys like Thiessen kill them, laugh, then go collect more subsidies. They are additionally helped out in killing struggling wildlife by federal agencies like the inaptly named Wildlife Services. Wildlife Services is a federal agency we allow to kill millions of wild animals each year, over 2.7 million in 2016 alone, for the benefit of the public lands ranchers. Now the land is out of balance with too many ungulates of all kinds overgrazing everywhere. It is nuts.
What it could be
It could be beautiful. We think of the overgrazed, cheat grass riden, barbed wired status of most of the land in the Intermountain West as normal. It is not. Nature would largely heal itself if we got the private livestock off of our public land. We could start with the lawbreakers like Thiessen and revoke their grazing permits, as the law requires. These scofflaws graze by permit, not by right. We don’t need to offer the law breakers a buyout. Get them off the land.
We would then be right side up. See who is laughing then.