Public land debate

Livestock Industry Opinions
Apr 25, 2014

This Bundy episode may be a bigger deal than we think. His predicament has drawn a lot of national attention to public land ranching; most ranchers would prefer that he just go away. But, it happened and we need to make the best of a bad situation and shift the focus away from him and onto the bigger problem of federal land management and environmental policy, more specifically the Endangered Species Act (ESA).


Environmental groups have been active in guiding public policy on federal lands and working through the federal government to create policy that is not allowing resource users to gain full value from federal land use. If the states were to manage those lands and create their own management plans on a local level, all resource users could benefit, making it more difficult for environmental groups to attack individual states, rather than one central government.

Conservation and production belong in every land management plan. The ranching community knows and embraces conservation issues from an economic point of view. However, the government agencies that manage those lands operate from a non-discretionary regulatory point of view. The problem is that public land ranchers are the only ones who have skin in this game of proper range management on public lands. ESA is the big problem when it comes to proper land management on both private and public lands. The act has been far too intrusive and there are very few economic incentives for public land ranchers to engage in wildlife conservation efforts, yet they should be the starting point.

Think about it: The only reason the ranching community is engaged in the sage grouse conservation is the threat of losing grazing rights on public lands. If the Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t threaten those ranchers with curtailment of their grazing rights, federal land ranchers would not be engaged at all.

Last week the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial by Shawn Regan, a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), a think tank in Bozeman, MT, that suggested a capitalistic view of public land grazing leases and the idea that if environmental groups want to increase habitat they think is needed for some species, they should simply buy the grazing lease or the water and be done with it—no conflict or legal battles.

We’ve heard about these deals before and most ranchers don’t like the idea because it takes that land out of production. Yet, some federal grazing leases are pretty marginal and tough to manage so I see that it would be an attractive option for some. I like Regan’s free market approach to environmental issues.

PERC realizes the adverse effects of the ESA and sees a market driven approach to improving habitat for land owners and managers. They don’t seem to think that the federal agencies are capable of administering those species reclamation projects. The track record on most ESA populations isn’t very good.

PERC also points out that environmental groups are incentivized by the ESA to manipulate the science that is typically the baseline for species listing decisions and policies, and says that if an interest group wants to influence regulatory outcomes, it’s in their interest to try and influence the initial scientific determination. PERC says this explains why there is so much controversy and conflict over species decisions and cites that credible science is often a problem. They also point out that the best available science may tell us that there is a problem, but it doesn’t tell us what to do about it.

I like some of the work that PERC does and some of their ideas would benefit western land use and conservation efforts. They realize that if some group wants to enjoy an environmental benefit, then they should pay for it. They’ve done research, which points out the fact that personal wealth creates environmental awareness, because the wealthy can afford it.

We need to create environmental land use policies that can create wealth and allow public land ranchers the ability to invest in conservation efforts, not have them shoved down their throats.

Cliven Bundy’s problems started with the desert tortoise and subsequent habitat management decisions were made. Bundy’s situation was exacerbated by his unwillingness to work on the issues and his decision to stop paying grazing fees. His actions are not embraced by the public lands ranching community. However, his plight gives the industry an opportunity to point out that he is a symptom—a stubborn one—of ESA and has made a poor conservation effort. — PETE CROW

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