Report minimizes economic benefits of grazing

Jul 1, 2011

What’s public lands grazing worth to the economy? According to a report recently released by the Department of Interior (DOI), it’s not as much as you might think. The June 21 report, titled "The Department of Interior’s Economic Contributions," gives a breakdown of estimated economic impact and jobs created by different uses of DOI land, including recreation; oil, gas, and mineral leasing; grazing; timber; and renewable energy. DOI lands include the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), as well as the National Park Service and National Fish and Wildlife Service refuges. The DOI portfolio also includes off-shore drilling sites, and many dams and reservoirs.

Although oil, gas, coal and mineral extraction was the clear leader in generating jobs and wealth, with 57 percent of DOI-generated jobs (1,151,879) and over $225 billion in economic benefits, the report highlighted recreation as a powerful up-and-coming contender. According to the report, recreation creates 19 percent of DOI-generated jobs (388,127) and over $47 billion in economic benefits and activity. By contrast, public lands grazing was reported to support a lowly 0.2 percent (4,914) of all jobs generated by DOI policy, and generates a mere $0.64 billion in economic impact. Indeed, mention of the economic contribution of grazing and the value of producing a domestic food source on public lands was conspicuously absent in the executive summary of the report, which simply stated that "American citizens and industry, at work and at play, all benefit from Interior’s natural resource management: maintaining lands for recreation, protecting cultural and historical resources, storing and conveying water, generating power, leasing mineral rights, and providing valuable information to mineral markets."

The results of the report are being headlined by John Marvel, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, as proof positive that recreation is a far more economically relevant use of public lands than grazing. In an emailed press release, Marvel claimed that the results of the report support his agenda of removing cattle from public lands.

"A recent report published by the Department of Interior demonstrates what conservation advocates have been arguing for years: Recreational use of public lands creates many more jobs and much more economic value than public lands ranching," Marvel wrote. "Despite the staggering disparity in economic value of these competing land uses, the Bureau of Land Management continues to manage public lands to benefit public lands ranching above and beyond all other uses. This mismanagement frequently results in degraded conditions resulting in diminished recreational opportunities, reduction of wildlife, water contamination and the general abuse of the landscape. Nobody wants to pitch a tent in cow waste, have their trip cut short by E. Coli or Giardia or visit public lands that smell like a feedlot."

If the DOI report is to be taken at face value, the economic impact of grazing on BLM land would seem to be no more than a trifle compared to recreation, which the report dwells on extensively as the ascendant economic driver in the New West. Yet some of the findings of the study are puzzling.

Perhaps the most peculiar is the disparity in the report between the number of BLM permittees and the number of jobs directly created by DOI grazing policy. According to BLM, there are nearly 18,000 BLM grazing permits and leases and 21,000 allotments on BLM land. However, the DOI report indicates that there are only 2,507 "direct" jobs generated by BLM grazing policy. Evidently, ranchers themselves were not recognized by the modeling method used by DOI to estimate jobs that are dependent on BLM grazing, an omission most public lands ranchers would likely object to. Indeed, according to the report, each public lands permit is only responsible for generating 0.14 jobs total.

Kaveh Sadegahzadeh, public relations specialist for BLM, explained that the low employment numbers associated with public lands grazing are a product of the modeling method, which estimated BLM grazing-dependent jobs as a percentage of overall grazing within each state. For example, because BLM forage only accounts for 0.26 percent of total cattle production in California, the modeling method determines that BLM grazing supports only 0.26 percent of total livestock-related jobs in California, a mere 34 jobs. This is in sharp contrast to the 572 public lands grazing permits which support ranchers, their families, and numerous employees in California.

"There’s a lot of land out there that the ranchers are using to graze their livestock on, and we are only taking into account the amount of land that is BLM forage," explained Sadegahzadeh. "It would be unfair to say that all of those ranchers would be out a job if it weren’t for the BLM land. The BLM land accounts for a small percentage of the total land that the ranchers use."

Yet according to David "Tex" Taylor, range economist at Wyoming State University, the results of the modeling techniques are hard to square with the numbers of permittees currently ranching on BLM land.

"They mention there’s 18,000 BLM [grazing] permits and leases, and 21,000 allotments, and they come up with 2,500 direct jobs. That just seems a little difficult to fathom," remarked Taylor.

In another interesting feature of the report, modeling was used to estimate "indirect" jobs created by activities on public lands. For example, indirect jobs involve the wholesaling and manufacturing of goods and equipment that are used on public lands. As an example, the report considers that recreation not only generates jobs in restaurants and hotels, but also through the sale of fishing equipment, cameras, tents and other equipment, and through the manufacture of these products.

Similarly, the report indicates that "BLM grazing … operations have direct effects in terms of employment and income, as well as induced effects in the local economy such as the activities of other businesses required to support ranching operations and the local effects of spending the additional income derived from public lands grazing." Indeed, most public lands ranchers throughout the West are aware that their operations support a broad range of business, from grocery stores and petroleum suppliers, to tractor and vehicle dealerships, veterinary clinics, feed stores, well diggers, and many others, as well as the myriad manufacturers that supply the goods they sell.

However, the report indicates that total grazing on BLM land supports a total of only 1,676 indirect jobs, a number that most ranchers will find very difficult to countenance.

Undoubtedly, public lands ranchers will be demanding some answers over how these numbers were arrived at. From the perspective of producers who depend on public lands grazing for their livelihoods, the results of the DOI report will likely seem a classic example of bureaucratic Washington bean counting: hewing tightly to method, but completely disconnected from reality. — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent