Industry Wreaks Incredible Damage
Recent comments about a variety of environmental protection laws delivered by the Department of Interiorís solicitor general, William Myers, to the Nevada Cattlemenís Association reveal more than perhaps this former lobbyist for the livestock industry intended. When the past president of one of the most powerful ranching groups in the country describes ďBillĒ as a ďfriend in the solicitorís office,Ē the general public had better be prepared to saddle up for a rough ride. No doubt, the Interior Departmentís soon-to be-completed proposed grazing regulations, designed to reverse ďsomeĒ of the minimal grazing reform instituted under Secretary Babbittís tenure, will be as outrageously preferential to industry interests as many other actions already taken by the Bush administration.
As a representative of a national animal protection organization, I know many of our organizationís efforts focus on addressing problems caused both directly and indirectly by the livestock industry, several of which are tied specifically to public lands grazing. People may be unaware that general tax dollars are subsidizing an industry that wreaks incredible damage on the environment, deliberately exterminates an incalculable number of wild animals, causes incredible suffering to countless domestic animals and whose products are contributing to several human health problems.
Thanks to government give-aways, Western cattle ranchers have been profiting from the public largesse for years. With less than three percent of the nationís beef cattle being raised on Western public lands, the contributions of these operations to regional economies are insignificant, but their serious, adverse impacts are astounding. For instance, examine the mammoth restoration effort underway in the Great Basin of the West where ecological diversity and cultural and aesthetic values of the landscape are probably permanently lost in many areas because the land has been seriously degraded through years of over-grazing by livestock. The lack of resolve by governmental officials to use foresight to guide decision-making has resulted in an inestimable loss of native flora and fauna. The Great Basinís ecological health is in grave jeopardy, and now, a daunting and unparalleled restoration effort must be undertaken simply to halt the precipitous downward ecological trends. Incredibly, taxpayers are being asked to underwrite the exorbitant cost of this restoration plan, thus losing twice -- first, the grandeur of the Great Basin, and now, greenbacks galore. At the same time, our government recklessly continues to subsidize ranching on these and other public lands.
Campaigns to protect and restore federally-listed threatened and endangered species such as grizzly bears and wolves are only necessary because ranchers exterminated these animals in the first place, and shockingly, are still killing these animals today along with coyotes, Yellowstone National Park bison, prairie dogs, mountain lions, eagles, and more. Yes -- you guessed it. Taxpayers are footing the bill to kill wildlife on our public lands for private ranchers who pay a pittance for grazing fees, profit from low property taxes and open range laws and use public lands permits as collateral to obtain bank loans. Other wastes of general tax dollars include removing thousands of our nationís wild horses and burros to eliminate competition for valuable forage, littering our public lands with fences and water developments to accommodate livestock and offering price supports and emergency relief to benefit these same individuals. To make matters worse, the majority of subsidies go directly into the pockets of large corporations and millionaires, not small family ranchers.
Strictly from a public policy perspective, it makes little financial sense to dole out welfare to ranchers only to turn around and spend more money to try to remedy the multitude of problems that ranching creates. Itís analogous to subsidizing tobacco farmers, while at the same time, financing the cost of anti-smoking campaigns and research into how to treat smoking-related illnesses. Itís idiotic, wasteful and downright wrong.
Of course, the American publicís enormous financial losses on federal grazing programs pale in comparison to other losses attributable to livestock production. Water pollution and depletion, land conversion, soil erosion, and wildlife displacement and destruction donít easily compute in accounting cost/benefit models, but they do take a tremendous, and often irreversible, toll on our natural heritage.
The time is long overdue for the government to shake off the political stranglehold that the ranching industry exerts over legislative and regulatory processes. More and more people are growing sick and tired of bankrolling rancher exploits and of their scandalous political influence. While some people still wax poetic about western cattle culture, itís a new age with increased knowledge about the environment and with different and wiser values about how wildlife and wild lands should be managed. It may come as a surprise to some individuals accustomed to dictating federal land policy, but the hundreds of millions of acres of public lands in the West are not the private property of a handful of ranchers; they belong to all Americans.
In the words of author George Wuerthner, editor of the new book, Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West, ďHow many more chances, at how much cost, should the public allow ranchers and public range managers? How many more species do we care to see become endangered or extinct before we, the owners of the public land, say it is time to give up on trying to develop the kinder, gentler cow and instead focus on fixing the damage that has been done, and on putting our western landscapes back together?Ē Ecosystems that once teemed with floral and faunal diversity are vanishing. All of the denials by ranchers donít dispute this grim reality. The American public desperately needs and deserves immediate action on the part of our public officials to do what is necessary to adequately protect our public lands for the optimal public good and for the benefit of wildlife and natural processes. Quite simply, instead of beef, we need some backbone.
Andrea Lococo is the Rocky Mountain Coordinator of The Fund for Animals, a national animal protection organization, headquartered in New York City with regional offices throughout the country.