Every year that I am able I pay a visit to Big Sur, California, one
of my favorite places since I was very small. I love the scenic drive
up the rugged coast on the winding WPA-era highway One through the
land where the mountains meet the sea. You've seen it in car
commercials, and the famous chase scene from North by Northwest, and
the picture in your mind, no doubt, is of the azure Pacific waters
glistening in the sun as waves lap the rocky coast line below sloping
Emerald meadows. As a kid I took all of this for granted, but I
gradually came to realize that the ribbon of highway isn't the only
feature there that is foreign to the natural landscape. The fact is
that those brilliant swaths of Green shouldn't be there – and they
wouldn't be were it not for the small herds of cows that regularly
scour the fenced-in private ranches, allowing grasses to flourish
where once there were coastal prairies and thickets of woods. The
fact is  that the Big Sur we have all seen in pictures and post cards
for as long as we can remember is, in reality, a severely altered
landscape, some of whose most iconic features are the result of large
scale human-caused damage. In that sense, Big Sur, as we know it, is
a perfect metaphor for the much larger environmental crisis facing
the American prairies of the South and MidWest , and the way we have
grown to accept the destructive agricultural practice known as
“ranching” as an immutable facet of the American identity.
      As the motley hoard of rogue ranchers in cheap Stetsons,
camo-Carharts and guns inhabit an unguarded bird sanctuary in rural
Oregon, net-savvy citizens have been quick to point out the obvious
double-standard with regard to the way law enforcement has handled
the secessionist stand-off as opposed to the violent crackdowns
meted out in Ferguson or Baltimore, New York, and Minneapolis in
response to Black Lives Matter protests. We have ridiculed these
inarticulate Marlboro men with apt monikers like “Y'all Queda”, and
“Vanilla Isis”. I've called them “Bundymentalists”, owing to the
fact that their chief instigators are members of the Bundy clan from
Nevada, infamous for an earlier armed stand-off sparked by Federal
officials attempts to collect more than a Million dollars in
delinquent cattle-grazing fees owed by the self-appointed patron
saint of illegal grazing, Cliven Bundy. Folks have observed that the
Bundy's, and, indeed a great many cattle ranchers, are dependent on
subsidies from the very same government the Bundy Bunch and their
fan club so vehemently decry. Ranchers whose properties abut Federal
lands depend on being able to graze their cattle on public  acreage
in accordance with leases they obtain from the Bureau of Land
Management. But the Bundy's want to enjoy this privilege without
having to pay for it, and that, indeed, is the message they've
brought to Oregon.
     Under the banner of “returning the land” the Bundy's and other
Libertarian extremists would like to see all Federal lands opened up
to private commercial exploitation – not just by ranchers, but by
loggers and drillers, and surface miners as well. And there is a
danger in being too cavalier in dismissing the Bundy Bunch antics in
Oregon too flippantly, as they are, in fact, one facet ( albeit a
tragically comical one) of a larger and more ominous threat. The
Bundy's, perhaps unwittingly, are philosophically allied with every
extractive or polluting industry that seeks immunity for laws that
protect the commons. Where the Bundy's have their paltry snacks and
rifles, fuzzy mittens and even fuzzier rhetoric, the mining giants
and oil barons have powerful lobbies and bottomless pockets. There
may be no chance that the Malheur nature preserve in Oregon will be
ceded to state control ( a strategy  that would surely result in
cash-strapped states selling or leasing such lands to private
interests)  there IS a chance that a Republican-controlled Congress
might approve the proposed mining operations in or around the Grand
Canyon. Less than two years ago Arizona Senator John McCain added a
rider to a budget bill that will allow a rare and pristine
publicly-owned wilderness area East of Phoenix to become the site of
one of the world's largest open-pit Copper mines. *Open-pit mining is
like Mountain Top Removal  in reverse. Instead of blowing up the top
halves of mountains to get at thin seams of Coal, giant holes are
dug, the size of inverted mountains to get at the toxic ores deep
below. And, just as the Oregon preserve is the ancestral land of the
Paiutes, who still have a nominal claim there, the Oak Flats region
in Arizona is shared by several bands of the Dine and Apache people,
many of whom live just a few miles away on the San Carlos
reservation.  For many Native Americans mining leases and grazing
contracts on federally managed properties consecrate the theft of
those lands from their original inhabitants and stewards. Indeed, the
760 acre Malheur preserve is all that remains of the original Malheur
reservation which once spanned 1.5 Million acres.
But what of the ranchers' claims? After all, many of them have held that
profession for generations. It's a way of life, and it's a living. No one
disputes that it takes a lot of work to operate a ranch, and some
impressively long hours, too. And anyone who has had dealings with the
Bureau of Land Management knows that the traditionally industry-friendly
agency can be heavy-handed and downright obtuse. The BLM was created in
1946 by an executive action by President Truman. It's “mixed-use” mandate
was a refinement of the more open-ended grazing policies created more than
a decade earlier under the Taylor Grazing Act. The Grazing act itself was
intended as a necessary stop-gap to prevent federal lands from being
completely ruined by over-grazing as Western ranchers replaced the great
Buffalo herds with their European imports. Even in 1934 it was abundantly
evident that ranching (grazing vast numbers of cattle) was degrading the
land. The Grazing act divided Federal lands adjacent to private ranches in
to grazing alotments and placed limits on the number of cattle allowed on
the leased land and the duration of their permitted occupancy. A small
per-head fee was imposed, but , thanks to pressure from the ranching
industry, funding was cut, making enforcement nearly impossible. With the
creation of the BLM, Timber and Minerals were added to the agency's
purview, and, in some places, grazing alotments were truncated to make
room for mines and drilling. A common criticism of the BLM is that it
appears to exist primarily to facilitate commercial access to Federal
lands (much like many state agencies such as the Ohio Department of
Natural Resources which permits fracking and waste disposal wells in state
parks, and administers clear-cuts in Ohio's remaining public forests). But
that is not the ranchers' beef. The Bundy's vision, to remove all federal
authority from these public lands, would produce a veritable gold-rush of
ranchers, miners, and drillers alike, surpassing the level of such
activities traditionally allowed by the BLM.

The BLM's mandate has shifted, however, in response to the dwindling
percentage of natural habitat. Regulations on grazing have tightened,
somewhat, as the BLM slowly shifts its focus toward conservation, and
grazing fees have increased, provoking some ranchers to complain that they
are being driven out of business. Well good. Yes, I said it. It is high
time that we take a hard critical look at ranching and its impacts.

There's a lengthy article circulating from a blog called “The American
Conservative” that chronicles the history of the conflict in Oregon
leading up to the 2016 standoff. It portrays the area's first ranchers,
dating back to the early 1900's as defenders of the wilderness. The state
government in Oregon, had, indeed encouraged commercial and agricultural
development in some horridly ruinous ways, allowing lakes and streams to
be drained and forests razed for cropfields. The scene of the occupation,
the Malhuer Nature Preserve, may have suffered such a fate were it not for
the objections of ranchers who depended on its watershed to irrigate their
herds. The article claims, however, that the ranchers, who converted
wetlands to dry grazing grounds previously made the place fertile and
increased wildlife abundance. The article refers to several “secret public
documents” that allegedly report increases in wildlife diversity on their
ranches over and above the levels of diversity observed in the preserves.
At first glance the article appears scholarly, even if its unsubstantiated
conclusions seem rather improbable. More recent and not-so-secret
documents paint a vastly different picture.

Observations and measurements of ranching's destructive impacts date back
more than a century, but the dynamics of that impact play out on a
landscape that is already altered. Ranching has typically followed logging
and subsequent short-term cultivation. Once a healthy forest is destroyed
by logging, the newly cleared land is exploited for crop production.
Without the renewal of nutrients the forest creates, however, the land is
quickly exhausted as the soil is depleted. Left fallow, opportunistic
native grasses re-colonize, making the land attractive for grazing.
Grazing, however prevents the natural succession of plants, creating a
cycle of regeneration and attrition that perpetuates  grassland ecoculture
and precludes the forest from re-establishing itself. Animal and plant
species alike that previously inhabited forests are permanently displaced
and the prairie-like ecosystem that replaces them is not balanced or
sustainable. When cattle suppress taller native plants less cover is
provided for prey species, which, in turn, leads to a surge in predator
populations. Ranchers then hunt the predators – some to extinction, or to
the brink of it. Species interdependency becomes so disrupted that species
like Prairie Dogs, Ferrets, Tortoises, and ground-nesting birds are
decimated, while hares and rabbits proliferate disproportionately. A study
by researchers at Oregon State University in Corvalis in cooperation with
the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Fish and Wildlife and
published in the journal Environmental Management focused on a region in
Oregon not far from the Malheur refuge. It  showed that once ranching was
no longer allowed in the study area for a period of 20 years, native
grasses and chaparral and early succession trees in riparian corridors
rebounded, with increases in some grasses approaching 400% .
Soil errosion is another by-product of grazing. With a more diverse system
of flora suppressed. the land loses its capacity to retain rain water.
Rivers and streams become choked with silt and grow shallower and broader,
while falling lower below the surrounding grade when seasonal torrents
create higher-than-normal flow rates. The particular grasses and trees,
like Willows that are ideally suited to riparian corridors suffer
disproportionate decline as cows tend to congregate in those areas as
well, resulting in less erosion control along the banks  Nitrogen-rich
manure enters the waterways, disrupting aquatic life there as well.
Conservation biologist Thomas Fleischner , in his landmark 1994 report
titled Ecological Costs of Livestock Grazing in Western North America
summarized the ecological impact of cattle grazing, as causing;
     “(1) Alteration of species composition of communities, including
decreases in density and biomass of individual species. Reduction of
species richness, and changing community organization.
      (2) Disruption of ecosystem functioning, including interference in
nutrient cycling and ecological succession.
      (3) Alteration of ecosystem structure, including changing vegetation
stratification, contributing to soil erosion and decreasing
availability of water to biotic communities.

The 2016 Oregon standoff , ironically, was in response to the sentencing
of two local ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond for two separate acts of
arson, one of which burned 139 acres of the preserve. The Hammonds have
claimed, variously, that they were using fire to eradicate invasive plant
species, or to create a fire break to stop the advance of an encroaching
forest fire. But numerous studies have shown that cattle grazing actually
increases the intensity , and thus the destructiveness of fires in
surrounding forest lands by suppressing fires in the adjacent prairies. A
report from the Oregon Natural Desert Association, a conservation group
working to increase environmental protections on public lands notes that
many forest ecosystems depend on frequent low-intensity fires to prevent
the over-growth of trees and woodlands brush species. Forests that are
thick with undergrowth, sometimes called “doghair thickets” are
susceptible to fires that burn longer and hotter than normal, and which
can thus threaten larger trees. Federal agencies have responded with a
strategy of “controlled burns”, with mixed success, but these isolated,
deliberately set fires occasionally become uncontrolled, like the one in
Ohio's Shawnee State Forest where a 233 prescribed burn by the Ohio
Department of Natural Resources expanded to consume nearly 3,000 acres.

With the damaging effects of cattle grazing being so well documented for
so long, one may wonder why the practice is still allowed on public lands.
The Bureau of Land Management allows grazing on around 155 Million acres
out of the 247 Million acres it manages, according to the U.S. Department
of the Interior.  This represents just under 20,000 grazing leases. The
fees charged by the BLM, based on each month of grazing for an individual
cow and calf-pair, or an equivalent grouping of sheep, are far below the
costs of maintaining those animals on private lands, thus incentivizing
ranchers, according to Interior Department fiscal year reports, to utilize
leased public lands more often and more intensively than private lands.
The Congressional Accounting office reports, however, that the cost to the
public of BLM grazing leases in 2005 was $144 Million, while revenues from
those leases amounted to just $21 Million. That's a $123 Million public
subsidy to the ranchers, and it does not take in to account the cost of
environmental remediation, if such a program were to be initiated. The
General Accounting Office reports also show a steady decrease in grazing
fee rates which, in 2012 were less than 25% of the rate assessed in 1952.
Furthermore, the total number of cows grazed on public lands represents a
tiny fraction of the over-all number of cattle raised annually in the U.S.
In 2004 there were only 27,000 ranchers with federal grazing leases (3% of
the total number of ranchers), and that number has steadily declined over
the last decade. Their output accounts for less than 3% of the total
amount of beef generated by U.S. producers. The Department of the Interior
estimates that only about 17,000 jobs may be directly attributable to
grazing on public lands whereas there are close to 400,000 people employed
in the service of recreational and other uses of public lands, not
including extractive industries.

There have been efforts to end grazing on public lands. Federal
recognition of  threatened species such as  the Southwestern Willow
Flycatcher under the Endangered Species Act has forced changes in grazing
policies, reducing grazing allotments on lands managed by both the BLM and
the U.S. Forrest Service. Researchers at the University of Oregon in
Corvalis published a report in 2012 citing the compounding effects of
climate change on the damage done by grazing, which called for massive
reductions in grazing leases, and even hinted at their elimination
altogether. In 2003 a group of Arizona environmentalists, and even some
cattle ranchers brought a proposal to Congress to create a Federal program
to buy-out grazing leases, thus compensating ranchers in exchange for the
leases being permanently retired. In New Mexico, environmentalists managed
to buy a grazing lease so as to assure that little to no grazing would
occur on one particular 550 acre plot. Even as early as 1993, a survey by
Utah State University professor  Mark Brunson showed public sentiment
somewhat in favor of ending all grazing on public lands.

But if public support for cattle ranching seems slow to wither, it may be
due to decades of romanticizing of the profession by Hollywood which has,
since the early days of film portrayed the rancher as the epitome of
rugged (white) individualism and tireless work ethic. Though ranchers have
always been a tiny fraction of the working population, their
larger-than-life presence in the iconographic panorama of American popular
culture has assured them  permanency as a personification of  (white)
national identity. The Bundy ranch stand-off two years ago may have
created a crack in that Rushmoric mantle, as the world saw a decidedly
different picture of ranchers, or at least their most vocal sub-set.
Cliven Bundy's own public statements, which conveyed no small measure of
disdain toward people of color, and the addition of semi-organized white
supremacists to his bunkered brigade highlighted both the monochromatic
nature of the ranching profession as well as the yersteryear political
persuasions of some of those who practice it. Jump ahead to the 2016
stand-off where the Younger-Bundies and their allies have been seen coming
and going from the Malheur preseve in their pickup trucks sporting signs
that read “No BLM” Presumably they refer to the government bureau, but on
the long drive home to Nebraska or Texas or Arizona they'll likely pass
through parts where the acronym stands for the latest iteration of the
civil rights movement. The Bundy clan's antics have brought to light their
financial dependency on the government's largesse – yet another thing they
have in common with the oil, gas , timber and coal industries, This comes
at a time when a cavalcade of candidates for state and national office are
drumming up resentment over government programs that benefit anyone but
the wealthiest elites. The rough-and-tumble self-sufficient riders of the
range may soon be seen as Western welfare whiners whose bumbling
statements to the press  sound more like hyperbole than hyper-masculinity.

There is, of course, a minority of ranchers who do practice some level of
stewardship, as an article in this month's Atlantic reveals, but global
demand for meat and dairy are also on the decline. The USDA, in their
December 2015 Livestock , Dairy and Poultry Outlook report projects a
decline of 8% in the price of beef in 2016 over the previous year's value,
so the Bundy's, in their quest for national attention, may have just given
themselves, and their whole chosen profession a bit of a shiner, turning
their own anti-government and anti-conservation backlash to whiplash,
hastening the retirement not only of subsidized grazing but of the
manufactured mystique that has served as their principle asset and
justification.  So as the Sons of Bundy are silhouetted by the setting
sun, and riding tall in the saddle grows long in the tooth the world may
welcome an era of healing over herding, no longer at the mercy of hoofed
locusts and calloused cowboys gone silly with greed.