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Guest Editorial 
This page was last updated on January 06, 2009 .

Ranchers Make Assumptions About Their "Rights" on Public Lands
by: Kirsten Stade, posted 5/12/02 (originally submitted to Albuquerque Journal, Sept. 2000)

Hans Steinhoff's September 25 letter reflects a complete ignorance of basic ecological principles and a fundamental misunderstanding of the law as it applies to public land grazing. It also reveals an utter disrespect for the millions of Americans who would prefer that their tax dollars go toward the protection of our public land, rather than toward its destruction.

The Sacramento grazing allotment on the Lincoln National Forest in southern New Mexico is a national disgrace. Streams are eroded, choked with sediment, and fouled by livestock waste. The uplands are so denuded of grass that native wildlife can no longer survive there. The area, like so many lands grazed by livestock throughout the west, has been so overgrazed for so long that it can no longer offer adequate food or habitat to the endangered Mexican spotted owl, the Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout, or the hundreds of other wild species that call or once called the Lincoln National Forest home. These species, instead of finding refuge on federal lands, are being driven further toward extinction by the greed of the livestock grazing industry and the inertia of public lands agencies.

The Forest Service, after years of ignoring its own monitoring data that showed that cattle grazing on the Sacramento was at unsustainable levels and causing severe resource damage, finally took action to reduce ecological damage only after Forest Guardians filed suit. Even after the Forest Service took action to reduce numbers the ranchers defied the agency. Today after a federal judge ordered removal, it is uncertain how many cows remain on the 100,000 acre allotment, the largest in New Mexico.

This is typical of public lands management in the West. Agencies such as the Forest Service are required by law to monitor livestock grazing activities for their effects on endangered species and other resource conditions. When this monitoring reveals that grazing is excessive and causing levels of damage to the resource that can and should not be tolerated, the Forest Service often ignores its own data rather than confronting the politically powerful ranching industry.

Mr. Steinhoff's September 25 letter underscores a common fiction that is often held forth by indignant cattle ranchers bent upon asserting their "right" to graze public lands. According to him, "a grazing allotment is property belonging to the ranchers and cannot be lawfully taken..." In other words, public land is private property for use of the privileged few that have inherited grazing permits. This myth of a right to pillage public resources is the root cause of overgrazing throughout the West.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that a grazing permit on public lands is a revokeable privilege, not a right. This is the same common sense ruling that courts have been issuing for decades. But common sense doesn't phase the livestock industry or their friends in Congress. Pete Domenici uses his seniority every year to ensure that ranchers are exempt from environmental laws and generously subsidized to overgraze public lands.

The ecological cost of subsidized overgrazing is immense. Over 99 percent of native grasslands are annually clearcut by cattle. Native predators continue to be hunted to extinction, while rivers and wetlands are dewatered to grow hay and thousands of miles of streamsides are hammered to dust. Livestock waste and soil erosion from overgrazed lands pollutes 85 percent of New Mexico's waterways. Cows are in all our wilderness areas. Hundreds of species in the West are going extinct because livestock destroy their habitat.

And to what end? All so that a few livestock ranchers can continue to enjoy the privilege of turning public assets, that are for the use and enjoyment of all, to their own private profit. And to add insult to injury, they do so with complete disregard for preserving the land for the use of others, and they do so at great expense to the taxpayer.

For those who fear a potential economic meltdown in the West if cattle were to be removed from public lands, it should be known that public lands cattle ranching accounts for a mere one-half of one percent of all jobs throughout the West, and less than one percent of the economy throughout the American West. For those cattle ranchers who truly would be hard-hit by reductions in permitted cattle on public lands, Forest Guardians would be the first to advocate that they be compensated for their loss in exchange for permanently retiring the grazing allotment. Federal funds that would otherwise have gone into range "improvements" (the barbed-wire fences that mar scenic hiking trails, the stock tanks that drain streams, etc.) could be used for this compensation.

Its time to end this national disgrace. At a minimum, the livestock industry must obey environmental laws and cut back livestock use to preserve wildlife habitat and water quality. Cattle ranchers don't own our national forests. These lands are owned by all present and future generations of Americans. Its time for us all to stand up to the privileged few and demand that our public lands be protected.