Category Archives: Environmental Economics

Sage Grouse ESA Listing?

Check us out, girls.

Last Friday morning a half a dozen cars full of environmentalists, mostly, are parked on the side of a rural road waiting for dawn.  It is surprising cold, a bit below 20 degrees, and most of us are a bit under-dressed.  As suggested, we stayed in the cars, and again as suggested by the folks parked next to us, quieted down.  As the first morning twilight came on we could begin to see and hear the sage grouse males, big as turkeys, some now even out in the road, doing their spring mating ritual thing.  Fantastic.

Kirsten and I were there with the staff of Wild Utah Project to see our first sage grouse lek.  We were there with folks from the Salt Lake Hogle Zoo and were hosted by a couple of guys from the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).  I was a little surprised these guys were there with us, particularly when they started talking about grazing as “a tool.”  You can guess you are in a bit of idealogical trouble when someone starts to tell you this arid environment is better off with domestic cows.  The NRCS is part of the U.S. Dept of Agriculture is providing millions of dollars in incentives to get ranchers to take care of the land they use.  Ranchers and the ag people are running a bit scared because of the threat of sage grouse being listed next year as an endangered species.  Given that there is said to have been over 15 million birds in the sage brush oceans of the West when Europeans arrived with their cows, and now are less than 300,000, the listing is a good bet.

My question, that chilly morning, was if we enviros should be helping the ag folks try to fend off the listing, like by putting flags on barbed wire fences to keep the birds from strangling in the wire.  Much of ranching is in tough times economically.  A lot of ranchers would be happy and willing to take a buy out for their grazing permits, if it were legal.  If buyouts could be arranged on consecutive grazing allotments, the ranchers could be capitalilzed, cows would be kept out of the leks, and those fences instead of being flagged, could come down.  Listing of the sage grouse is likely the only tool that could herd the ranchers, politically, into benefiting from buyouts.  From a long term economic trend standpoint, it is clear the ranchers ought to take the buyouts now before they are forced out later when their permits get denied.

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Cowpie National Monument

Beautiful, fragile, poorly managed.

Beautiful, fragile, poorly managed.

Grand Staircase Escalanate National Monument, Burr Trail (GSENM), May 20, 2013 

It doesn’t make sense to subsidize environmental degradation on public lands.  Kirsten and I went out for a couple of nights camping to the Deer Creek campground off the Burr Trail in the GSENM.  After a hike down Deer Creek for less than a mile we turned around, sad and disgusted, and came back a day early.

The campground is an oasis in the high desert red rock country.  Deer Creek runs off of Boulder Mountain toward the Escalante River and on to Lake Powell.  Along its banks are cottonwood trees, coyote willow, aspen and spring wildflowers.  That is, if the delicate area is protected from cows.  The campground is cattle guarded for the most part and was a delight.  Out of the gate, across the road and down the stream was another matter.

Leaving camp we came across the first ominous signs.  Inside the campground the spring grasses were knee high and robust.

Cattle guard and fence at campground.  Cows hang out at viewer's right.

Cattle guard and fence at campground. Cows hang out at viewer’s right.

On the other side of the fence the grass was already overgrazed and gone.  Ranchers and their apologists such as the responsible BLM agents call this a “sacrifice zone” saying that cattle will congregate along fences making things worse there than  in general elsewhere.  But in general cows are to be kept out of riparian zones.  In fact, that is where they primarily hang out.  We crossed the road and signed in at the trail head register.  Behind the first row of willows it smelled and looked like we had walked into a stock yard.  The trampled stream was at our feet and the cows were there strip mining away.

It costs a rancher $1.35 per month for a permit to graze a cow and her calf on public land.  It is the same price they paid in 1962 and 1/10 to 1/20 the going market rate and less than it costs for you to feed your gerbil.  It costs the taxpayer more to manage the ranching/permittees than the ranchers make doing it.  It’s the reason for the pejorative “welfare rancher.”  These folks couldn’t afford to keep doing it with out subsidy.

The grass, wildflowers and willows should be hip high in this riparian area.

The grass, wildflowers and willows should be hip high in this riparian area.

In addition to paying for gates and fences, the taxpayer also pays to exterminate wildlife that might threaten the cows like wolves and coyotes and even beaver (beaver are virtually outlawed by the county commissioners in Garfield County where much of the Monument is).

This whole area should be hip high in grass, wildflowers and willows.

Cow burnt.

It is wolves and other predators that keep ungulates on the move in riparian areas allowing the supporting undergrowth like the grasses, wildflowers, and the cottonwoods, aspen and willows to prosper.  That bugs ranchers so even federal agencies like the so called “Wildlife Resources” spend millions making creeksides like this one a virtual private ranch where, as if they are the only concern, there is no need to monitor and manage the cows.  A half a dozen of the hooved locusts were munching nearby.

The ranchers answer that this is their way of life.  But who gets that?  Torrey House Press is losing money, and it is my way of life, but I am not asking for subsidies.  I have to make it work or get out of the business.  The commissioners ask who I am going to put out of a job.  Great rhetoric but the wrong question.  I am not qualified to say who should have a job and who shouldn’t and the government certainly isn’t.  Ask the Soviet Union about that practice.  The market could be allowed to work it out and there are market solutions.  The conservation community is standing by ready to buyout grazing permits but only if the permits can be retired.  By current law permit retirement on BLM land literally requires an act of congress.

P1010267Cows made sense for a little while in the arid Intermountain West and the Colorado Plateau but with the advent of the railroad and easy transportation, such things as grazing need to be done on private land where it rains.  There is plenty of it east of the 100th meridian.  It is nuts to keep hammering our public treasures this way.

Exclosures – August 2012

First cup

Kirsten and I went up to the Fish Lake National Forest and camped on Thousand Lake Mountain in southern Utah for a couple of nights this last Thursday through Saturday August 16-18.  This area is just north of Torrey and we like to get up there in the summer just to get out and to do a little volunteer assessment of the management practices on these public lands.

We came away glad to have been out but distressed at how the land is being over used particularly for grazing and logging.  Working with Mary O’Brien of the Grand Canyon Trust we have become aware of how the open spaces of the public lands in the West are in a state of what Mary calls normalized degradation.  I’m afraid she is right.  The national forest above the Wasatch Front is managed for people.  These dry desert mountains in southern Utah have a multiple use directive, but the use in fact is dominated by ranching.  The contrasts are distinct.  Wildflowers are hip deep all summer in the Wasatch.  The southern meadows are grazed every year down to a 4″ stubble height.  That’s the goal, it is usually worse.  Riparian areas in particular take a beating.  Because of pressure by environmentalists some small areas called “exclosures”  have been set aside and somewhat protected from grazing.  The ecological difference in these exclosures is tremendous.  The cowboys obviously still let the cows into these protected spaces but not enough to erase the evidence of what these mountain meadows could be without public land grazing.

I have blogged about it more here and elsewhere, but the reasoning behind public land grazing defies common sense.  It is not economic.  The ranchers/livestock permittees depend heavily on subsidies for water, gates, fences, rangeland “treatments” and pasture control.  Most of them make very little money all the same.  Public land grazing is probably the number one source of public land degradation and yet the public subsidizes it.  It is a story of a very narrow special interest taking advantage of the public’s clueless largesse.  It has long been a problem and one that seems to be intractable.  At $1.35 per AUM (Animal Unit Month – one cow and calf for a month of grazing) ranchers pay the same fee to graze as they did in 1966.  Who gets such treatment today?  One way out, the best one I can see, is to give ranchers a right they do not now have and allow them to accept grazing retirement buyouts.   -Mark Bailey

Don’t photograph that cow!

I’ve been reading quite a bit about the history and current practice of grazing on public lands.  My question has always been how so few people could have such huge political clout.  The answer is complex and fascinating.  Much of the answer revolves around the power of the cowboy myth in the mind of the American and particularly in the mind of the American congressperson.  I think I will blog a bit about some current examples of both regulatory and political capture and about the harm that public land grazing does.  Here’s a current example of where the reactionary Utah congress is working on a law to make it illegal to take a picture of a cow. (HB187)  >>>more

What uses most of the land and water without showing up in production?

70% of the land in Utah is public.  And 70% of that land is handed out for grazing.  Over 80% of the water used in Utah is for agriculture and most of that is to grow hay for livestock.  That is a lot of land and water.  Open this chart on the left of the State of Utah Governor Gary R. Herbert Economic Report’s figures on employment by industry as a percent of total employment: Dec. 2011.  Where’s agriculture?  The subsidized use of all that land and water isn’t producing much, particularly jobs.

Ed Firmage lets the good old boys have it.

Welfare Rancher?

In response to an article in the Salt Lake Tribune announcing that Utah State Engineer Kent Jones OK’d the use of Green River water to cool a proposed nuclear reactor, Ed Firmage Jr. posted a polished reply.  Water management in Utah is an area much in need of watch dogging.  Mike Noel makes a living by exercising a powerful conflict of interest in the government positions he holds.  It’s how welfare ranching works and just like Bernard DeVoto called it 65 years ago: “Give me the money, now get out of here.”  Berate the federal government while taking finagled federal hand outs.  Not much has changed.  Noel has a seat on the Utah State Legislature and is the executive director of the Kane County Water Conservancy District, both government jobs.  Now he is concocting a boondoggle to sell Kane County water rights to a nuclear reactor which he will use his position as state legislator to support.    Here’s Ed’s response:

Let me see if I got this right:

A former two-bit Viagra salesman, Aaron Tilton, who was GIVEN (not elected) to a term in the state senate and who promptly lost his first attempt to be ELECTED to office (even Utah voters have standards), teams up with former legislative buddy, welfare rancher, and general good old boy Mike Noel, who makes his living railing against federal subsidies (except his own), and they concoct a plan for a federally subsidized nuclear reactor (all nuclear reactors are federally subsidized) in the middle of the howling Utah desert with water from an oversubscribed and climate-threatened river–in other words, using water for speculative gain, a practice prohibited by Utah law–and this Rube Goldberg scheme is OKd by the only representative of the Utah public who will have a say in this decision, Utah’s water “engineer,” Kent Jones, who opines, in either ignorance or denial of Wall St., that building a nuclear power plant, and that in a desert, isn’t a speculative venture and a therefore illegal use of Utah water.

I guess I must be in Utah, for by comparison, the story of the golden plates sounds perfectly plausible.

Ed’s last sentence is regrettably uncivil, but his calling the crony good old boys on their crap is a civil service.  Go Ed.