Protecting Public Land Ranching Won’t Preserve Open Space

You’ve probably heard the argument that we should defend the West’s ranching industry or ranchers will be forced to sell their land and it will be developed in to residential subdivisions.

But this usually isn’t true for a rancher who has a permit to graze public land managed by the Bureau or Land Management (BLM) or the Forest Service. The federal land associated with the ranch, called a grazing allotment, cannot be developed because the rancher doesn’t own it.

A public land ranch also includes a private parcel, called the base property, which is typically located adjacent to the federal grazing allotment for which the rancher has the grazing permit. This private land, of course, could be developed. First, however, it has to be marketable as a multi-residential property. Many base properties are too small, or too remote, accessible only by bad roads, have no nearby shopping, no available utilities, and lack a sufficient water supply. Another factor is that most of their owners are emotionally attached to them and will make every effort to keep them.

Furthermore, most public land ranchers in Arizona, for example, don’t rely on their livestock operation for their household’s primary source of income, as the climate is generally too arid for ranching to be that profitable. They shouldn’t complain that the long overdue application of longstanding environmental laws to grazing management on public lands is driving them out of business when they weren’t really “in business” in the first place.

But even when a base property does have the potential for residential development, the economic rewards for selling or developing it will be there no matter what terms are included in the associated federal grazing permit. And with continuing human population growth, the pile of money that could be made is only going to grow. It’s probably only a matter of time before most of the more attractive base properties are developed.

I concede, however, that some ranchers will sell or develop their base properties if their federal grazing permits are reduced or canceled. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. That’s because the popular cry about preserving open space is primarily an aesthetic concern. Protecting open space doesn’t necessarily equate to wildlife habitat preservation. A ranch base property, for example, has already been developed in regards to its value as natural wildlife habitat. In many cases, the differences between the land being used as a ranch base or a residential area are minimal to the local wildlife. Most base properties already have a house, and many include barns, sheds, and denuded holding pastures. If they were developed as residential areas, the landscaping installed by the new homeowners could actually increase the quantity and quality of local wildlife habitat, especially if native plants are used.

Furthermore, when a ranch base property is converted to residential use, there are no longer any cattle degrading the wildlife habitat on the adjacent federal grazing allotment. Since the average grazing allotment is tens of thousands of acres in size, the improvement in the condition of the allotment after the cessation of livestock grazing can more than offset whatever loss of wildlife habitat may result from the conversion of the ranch base property to residential development.

I realize more people in the area would likely create new environmental problems, like increased traffic, sewage concerns, and roaming dogs preying on wildlife. But it’s a safe bet that most of the new residents would be more interested in seeing the surrounding public lands managed primarily for wildlife, recreation, and watershed health, than for natural resource exploitation – like cattle grazing.

I’m not saying that helping a public land rancher keep their grazing operation going is never in the public’s interest. There are always exceptions. What I’m saying is that protecting public land ranching is not a policy that will ensure the preservation of open space and wildlife habitat in the West.

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