Category Archives: Environmental Economics

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.

Failure of Land Use Socialism

There is nothing more harmful to the arid lands of the American West today than public land grazing.  It is ironic that the Cato Institute, the leading libertarian, conservative think tank calls the results of over a century of grazing on public lands, ” . . . a testimony to the failure of land-use socialism.”  Ouch.  70% of the over 300 million acres of public land in the West is grazed, producing less than 3% of the nation’s beef.  Agriculture is less than 1% of the western economies but uses nearly 80% of the water, much of that used to grow hay for to feed livestock.  Ranching is a tiny little special interest.  A rancher pays $1.35 per month to graze a cow and its calf.  How much do you suppose it costs to feed a gerbil for a month?  Yet the BLM, with $40 million of taxpayer stimulus money, wants to ignore the impact of grazing in their Rapid Ecoregional Assessments project to map ecological trends throughout the West.  See more here . . . >>

American Drinking Water Gets a D-. Republicans want it to get an F.

“Bipartisan analyses have repeatedly shown that the cost of environmental regulation is exponentially cheaper than the costs of toxic cleanup and medical care.” And yet the fearful shriek that environmental regulation “kills jobs” while the hamstrung EPA can’t even adequately test or develop standards for two-thirds of the pollutants detected in water. Enough already.    . . . more>>

Regulators Taken Hostage by Cows

Me? What?

 

Mary O’Brien of the Grand Canyon Trust says it is like doing a study on obesity and not considering what people eat.  The BLM is spending $40 million of taxpayer stimulus funds to do a “ecoregional assessment study” but ruling out ahead of time the impact of grazing.  The regulators are afraid of upsetting the regulated.  Regulatory capture at it’s worst.  Are we Alice at the Mad Hatter’s table?  Here’s Rocky Barker of the Idaho Statesman with more.

Our River Run Dry

The Colorado River does not make it to the sea.  It’s all used up 70 miles before it gets there, leaving the Colorado River Delta parched.  Over 75 percent of the water extracted goes to agriculture.  Whenever something about water use comes up in the press, watering lawns always comes up.  That is the wrong grass.  It’s not lawns draining the river, it’s hay.  Buying up the virtual property right of water rights from farmers and ranchers is called “water ranching.”   I’ll try to find more on that in the future.  In the meanwhile, here’s a piece from the New York Times on the river, and another interesting blog from a recent author on the subject, Jonathan Waterman (great name.)

Private Profit, Public Expense

The Salt Lake Tribune weighs in.  This kind of economic nonsense of allowing an open pit coal mine on the doorstep of a favorite national park in order to create a couple hundred jobs is just what ticks off  Tom Wharton in the previous post.  . . . more>>