If I were to advise the next president on rewriting America’s public land laws, without hesitation I’d begin with the Taylor Grazing Act. A needless source of animosity between environmentalists and ranchers, corruption at the local level, and destruction of biodiversity, grazing is the vestigial tail of our western identity.
The litany of problems with public lands grazing is long, but a short list might include damage to riparian areas, pollution to water sources, destruction to soils and vegetation, introduction of invasive species, and the overall displacement and destruction of native biotic communities. Add to this the boondoggle that public land ranching is, with ranchers paying far below market rates for their leases – currently at $1.35 per AUM – and the federal government playing a supporting role at a cost of between $135 million and $500 million annually to administer the leases, perform the environmental analyses, and control predators.
And it’s all so unnecessary. Public lands ranching contributes a minimal amount to the nation’s beef supply, somewhere around 4 percent, and economic studies show that ranching has a nominal impact on local economies. One is hard pressed to make an intelligent utilitarian argument to continue this abuse.
The problem with using the commons for grazing is that it is neither sustainable nor ecologically sound. Remember Leopold’s land ethic: grazing destroys the stability, integrity, and the beauty of every biotic community upon which it is practiced. And those who believe public grazing practices can be made sustainable are naïve. The bureaucrats, the courts, the non-governmental community, our willfully negligent congress, all have proven impotent or unwilling to resolve the problems.
Public lands ranching is an extravagant use of 235 million acres of the commons, and the next president ought to make it a priority to end this abuse as soon as possible.