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

Stewardship or Rhetoric?
by: Kirsten Stade, posted 4/22/02 (originally submitted to Albuquerque Tribune)

Forest Guardians believes Sherry Robinson’s recent editorial (11-12-01), in which she contends that members of the livestock industry are stewards of the public lands, ignores ecological limits of the arid landscape and completely mischaracterizes our efforts to protect the ecological integrity of the landscape.

We’ll cut right to the chase: If ranching is environmentally compatible, and if it can and does take place in harmony with natural processes and native wildlife, then why are Robinson and the ranchers for whom she speaks worried about environmental litigation brought by Forest Guardians and others?

The answer is that livestock grazing in the arid West is not compatible with wildlife, and is not compatible with healthy ecosystems in the American west. As an example, we would do well to remember the plight of the Southwestern willow flycatcher, an endangered songbird whose fate is inextricably linked with the fate of streams and rivers and the riverside habitat they support. This species has declined dramatically over the past century, as the livestock industry has spread throughout the southwest. This is not surprising when you learn that according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, 80-90% of riparian areas throughout the southwest are in degraded condition. Also according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, this fact is almost entirely attributable to the ravages of livestock grazing in these sensitive habitats.

The Southwestern willow flycatcher is just one of the more than 150 endangered species in the West that the Fish and Wildlife Service says are in trouble in part or primarily because of livestock grazing. Other animals, such as the Mexican gray wolf and the black-tailed prairie dog, suffer not only the degradation of their habitat and food sources caused by grazing, but because they are shot by ranchers who don’t tolerate even the slightest competition from native wildlife. The wolf and the prairie dog would not be endangered if it were not for the wholesale violent eradication campaign carried out by the livestock industry.

If ranchers’ stewardship were more than rhetoric, the wolf, flycatcher, prairie dog, and hundreds of other species throughout the southwest would not now be in danger of extinction, and ranchers would have nothing to fear from environmental groups invoking the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and the host of other environmental laws under which Forest Guardians has prevailed in courts of law.

Time and time again the ranching industry has exercised its political clout to further insulate itself from the requirements of national environmental laws. The Forest Service itself—an agency that has been the subject of Forest Guardians’ lawsuits--has admitted that it has defaulted on its duties to safeguard environmental values because it has been too busy catering to the ranching industry. A 1999 report by the agency concluded that “too often we know that streamside damage is unacceptable yet we lack the political will to address the problem.” Forest Guardians only resorts to litigation because the public agencies that are entrusted with protecting native wildlife and ecosystems for future generations of Americans are spineless in the face of political pressures.

Robinson raises the specter of the public lands ranching industry meeting its downfall only to be replaced by subdivisions. This is the old cows versus condos myth, propagated by the ranching industry and upheld by those who refuse to confront head-on the reality of grazing’s devastating environmental consequences. It is a false dichotomy. The solution to urban sprawl and subdivisions is responsible land use planning.

Where the scientific consensus concludes that grazing is incompatible with wildlife conservation and clean water, and there is public consensus that open spaces are vital to our well-being, then surely we can come up with a third way, where open spaces are preserved as land trusts or conservation easements, and the very ranchers who profess to care so much about the land can resist selling out to the highest bidder. A choice between massive ecological destruction on the one hand and subdivisions on the other is a choice whose very foundation we should question.

Forest Guardians, as part of a coalition of environmental groups that recently formed the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, has in fact come up with another alternative. The Grazing Permit Retirement Plan would offer participating ranchers $175 per AUM—over two times the market rate—in exchange for an agreement to permanently retire their public lands grazing allotment. This alternative offers benefits to every side of the grazing controversy.

Our public lands would be freed from a destructive activity, and endangered ecosystems and wildlife could begin the process of recovery. Ranchers would get a substantial financial bonus which they could then use to upgrade their operations on private lands, or to get out of ranching altogether if they wish. Taxpayers would benefit since the initial cost of buying out ranchers’ grazing privileges would be paid for within the first few years, with the enormous savings from no longer having to administer the federally subsidized grazing program.

No one who is truly familiar with the state of our native ecosystems and wildlife in the southwest would argue that ranching is in any way a benefit to these ecosystems. If our natural heritage is to have any hope of recovery, we must begin the process of returning our public lands to the wildlife that are its rightful inhabitants, through litigation that seeks to uphold the laws of our land and compensation of those ranchers who are willing to give their privilege a rest.