Western grazing: the capture of grass, ground, and government.

Author:Donahue, Debra L.
Position:The Rule of Capture and Its Consequences
  1. INTRODUCTION II. AN OVERVIEW AND CRITIQUE OF PUBLIC-LAND GRAZING POLICY III. THE RULE OF CAPTURE A. Background B. Public Domain Grazing IV. THE CAPTURE THESIS A. Background and Criticisms B. Capture Theory Expanded to Fit Public Land Ranching 1. Capture of the Grazing Service and BLM in the Taylor Act Era 2. Capture in the Modern Era: FLPMA and PRIA V. THE CAPTURE METAPHOR: THE EXPANDING CONTOURS OF CAPTURE, 1980 TO THE PRESENT A. Cowboys in the White House B. Cowboys in the Agencies C. Cowboy Myths--and the Realities VI. CONCLUSION I. INTRODUCTION

    The western range livestock industry is a uniquely western American institution. It provides a context for examining three separate but interrelated aspects of the broad concept of "capture": 1) the legal rule of capture, as it relates to establishment of property rights in resources; (1) 2) the capture thesis of interest-group liberalism, which recognizes the ability of narrow interest groups to "capture," or co-opt, the agency and institutions charged with their regulation; (2) and 3) the phenomenon by which the "cowboy myth" has "captured" so many facets of American life and culture. (3) My objective in this article is to explore what I will call the "capture metaphor," which incorporates, or is informed by, all three aspects--the property law concept, the agency capture thesis, and the cowboy cultural phenomenon. This exploration will reveal not only that the three concepts share similar threads, but that together they go a long way toward explaining why the unsound and anachronistic policy of federal public-land gazing has persisted into the twenty-first century.

    The article thus begins with a brief critique of public-land grazing policy. (4) The article then examines, through the lens of the capture metaphor, how livestock owners in the late 1800s and early 1900s employed and modified the rule of capture to control the range and its non-mineral resources. It notes the irony of the industry's immense impact on public lands and resources, despite lacking any property interest in those resources. The article probes the disproportionate political clout of public-land livestock producers, revealing how they acquired and have maintained their hold on the range--even to the present time--by capturing the law, government regulators and politicians, the range science discipline, popular culture, and even some conservation organizations. This appropriation of range policy-malting and decision-making is aided greatly by the manipulation and uncritical acceptance of western myths rooted in the ranching way of life. Having donned cowboy mythology as if it were a Stetson, President Bush and his public lands appointees are perpetuating the capture tradition through their initiatives, language, and role-playing. The result has been to jeopardize further the ecological health of public lands and the legal system in place to protect them. The paper concludes that the extent to which the range livestock industry has exploited the capture metaphor is unequalled and that, unless checked, it is likely to be disastrous for the pubic lands. (5)


    Livestock grazing has long been the most widespread commercial use of federal public lands, currently occurring on approximately 270 million acres that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service manage in the western United States. (6) But livestock production-both grazing per se and "improvements" (7) undertaken for the benefit or management of livestock---can wreak havoc on the environment. Impacts are both direct and indirect, and include the following: 1) introduction and spread of nonnative plant species (invasive weeds) and diseases, 2) competition with native species for habitat, 3) destruction of rare or sensitive native plants, 4) intentional elimination of native predator and "pest" species, 5) soil compaction, drying, and excessive erosion, and 6) disruption of aquatic systems and hydrological patterns. (8)

    According to the Department of the Interior, BLM riparian areas are in their worst condition ever; the dry uplands have not improved under BLM management, and "[w]atershed and water quality conditions would improve to their maximum potential" if livestock were removed from public lands. (9) Similarly, the Forest Service concluded that livestock grazing is the primary cause of species endangerment in arid regions of the West, such as the Colorado Plateau and Arizona Basin. (10) Others have suggested that "livestock grazing may be the major factor negatively affecting wildlife in the 11 western states." (11) Grazing has also been identified as the number one cause of nonpoint source pollution of surface waters in the western states (12) and the principal cause of desertification in North America. (13) Ungrazed sagebrush steppe in the Intermountain Region is among the "most critically endangered ecosystems." (14) The most severe vegetation changes of the last 5400 years on the Colorado Plateau have been attributed to grazing in the last 200 years. (15) Plainly, western livestock grazing is endangering species and disrupting ecosystem processes on landscape scales at unprecedented rates. (16)

    These findings are explained in large part by evolutionary ecology. Within the past two decades range ecologists have come to understand that traditional theories of vegetative succession do not hold true on arid and semiarid lands, (17) particularly where precipitation patterns are highly variable and where the native vegetation and soft micro-organisms did not evolve with abundant large ungulates. (18) Current models explain that prolonged or excessive disturbance often by livestock grazing, in combination with altered fire cycles or other factors--can cause vegetation and soft conditions to degrade beyond certain threshold conditions, making the reestablishment of pre-disturbance conditions infeasible. (19) In other words, grazing can cause, and has caused, irreversible ecological changes across much of the West. (20)

    This knowledge is of special significance for BLM rangelands: The vast majority qualify as arid or semiarid, and native soil micro-organisms and plant species on most of these lands did not co-evolve with large numbers of large ungulates. (21) It should thus come as no surprise that with continued grazing, the condition of these areas has not improved under BLM management. (22) Nevertheless, federal range managers continue to adhere to outdated theories of vegetative succession in environmental assessments and planning documents, disregarding now widely-accepted state-and transition models of vegetation change. (23) Even when the agency acknowledges the new thinking, it fails to apply it. (24) The conclusion is inescapable: Much of the range science literature, and many agency publications, are propaganda or apology, not sound science or management advice. That "rangelands" will or should be used for livestock production has been an implicit premise of range research and management decisions. (25) Only rarely have researchers or managers considered whether livestock grazing is an appropriate or sustainable land use.

    Congress, however, was well aware in 1934 that western ranges were severely degraded by overgrazing and that many desert lands were simply unsuited to livestock use. (26) For this reason Congress, in the Taylor Grazing Act (TGA), authorized the Secretary of the Interior to establish grazing districts on lands "chiefly valuable for grazing or raising forage crops," (27) or, as the legislative history reveals, lands not more valuable for other uses. (28) While grazing continues to be allowed on 170 million BLM acres, the Interior Department has never determined which of its lands are "chiefly valuable" for grazing. (29) Indeed, it seems certain that, while livestock grazing is the most widespread commercial use of public lands, it is by far the least valuable. (30) Federal grazing fee revenues (recently increased to $1.79 per animal unit month (AUM)) (31) are swamped by the costs of administering the range program. (32) Average returns to ranchers range from negative to two to four percent. Only two percent of U.S. beef cattle production is attributable to public lands, an amount easily replaceable by other regions and private-land operators. (33) Similarly, the 18,000 low-wage jobs directly related to federal land grazing could be replaced in a matter of days by normal job and income growth in the national economy. (34)

    Nor have the agencies reasonably justified livestock grazing under the planning or management criteria of their principal land management statutes, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) (35) and National Forest Management Act (NFMA), (36) both passed in 1976. (37) Instead, grazing is rationalized as a means of sustaining small communities, maintaining open spaces on private lands, and preserving an important western way of life and culture. (38) The governing statutes, however, confer on the BLM and Forest Service no authority, much less a mandate, to promote local economic or lifestyle concerns or to regulate development on private lands. (39)

    Furthermore, the agencies' asserted justifications are belied by the facts. First, few if any western communities are dependent economically on public-land grazing. (40) On the contrary, the services and employment opportunities afforded by small towns help sustain public land ranchers. (41) Livestock production comprises a small fraction of the economies of most Western states, with public-land livestock production comprising an even smaller part. (42) Seventy percent of western cattle producers own all the land on which they operate; fewer than 23,000 livestock producers (about two percent of one million nationwide) possess federal grazing permits. (43) Second, keeping ranchers on public lands plays no demonstrable role in maintaining private-land open...

To continue reading