Dispelling the Cowboy Myth: an Interview with George Wuerthner
There is a tremendous irony in public lands ranching. On one hand, ranchers and cowboys are canonized in the Cowboy Myth as icons o stalwartness, hard work and an aw-shucks, salt of the earth mentality. In reality, ranchers are the most pervasively destructive force on our public land, with logging placed a distant second. Via outlandish subsidies, you, I and Uncle Sam support the cattle industry with drought and fire relief, fencing, water tanks, windmills and bargain basement grazing fees. Our government kills hundreds of thousands of wild creatures each year to protect ranchers' cows against predators such as wolves, mountain lions and coyotes.
In return we get erosion, endangered species, habitat destruction, flash-flooding, exotic weeds, desertification and some of the most degraded landscape on Earth. Much of it will never recover.
George Wuerthner of Eugene, Oregon, is one of the most outspoken leaders against public land's ranching. George dispels the Cowboy Myth and forecasts the demise of public lands ranching—one of the biggest farces in American history.
Tim: When did you begin working to dispel the Cowboy Myth?
George: I evolved gradually into a grazing activist. In high school, I worked in a hamburger fast food place. I thought the best part of the job was the free hamburgers. I even worked on a couple of ranches in college. I mended fences, rode through the sagebrush chasing steers and bucked bales of hay. I have some firsthand experience with ranching and its lifestyle. It has its attractions—especially if you ignore the environmental costs.
I began to re-assess my views on ranching as a result of my college experiences. As an undergraduate, I studied wildlife biology and botany. Then I went to graduate school in range science hoping to get a job as a range conservationist with the government. In other words, I was not inherently hostile to livestock production or ranching. But as I looked more and more at the ultimate causes of many western environmental issues, I kept coming back to one industry—the livestock industry. I came to conclude that the cumulative environmental effects of this industry easily outstrip all others, hence my conversion to a grazing activist.
Tim: George, what is the problem with public lands ranching?
George: It affects more public land than any other activity. Some 90 percent of all Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, 70 percent of Forest Service lands, dozens of national parks, wildlife refuges, state lands and even county lands are affected by livestock production. Because of its huge geographical scope, even if it were a benign use of the landscape, it would be a concern.
But it's anything but benign. It is the number one source for water pollution in the West. It's the number one source of soil erosion in the West. It's the number one cause of species endangerment in the West. It's the reason we don't have wolves throughout the West. It's one of the major reasons that more than four-fifths of all native fish west of the Continental Divide are endangered or threatened.
We are facing a biodiversity crisis. While protection of private lands is desirable, it is questionable whether we will ever achieve more than spotty and unsatisfactory results. Our public lands are critical to any effort aimed at protection of biodiversity and as a place where landscape-scale ecological processes like wildfire and predation can operate. We can grow cows elsewhere if we insist on growing cows anywhere. And there are certainly far better places to do this than our western public lands.
Tim: There is much discussion of the cows vs. condo myth. Some say cows beget condos. Just what does this mean and is it a legitimate concern?
George: Cows vs. condos refers to a false dichotomy that believes if you eliminate livestock production, particularly on public lands, you will foster greater sprawl and development. Many environmentalists, as well as the livestock industry itself, suggest that the way to protect open space is to protect the livestock industry. There are several problems with this strategy.
Most of us live in cities or towns that are growing. The West is one of the fastest-growing parts of the country due to net in-migration. It is only natural to assume that sprawl is necessarily worse than livestock production. It is something that we all experience everyday. Most of us don't directly experience the negative effects of livestock on a daily basis. So this colors our perception of the issue.
On an acre-by-acre comparison, sprawl and urban development is highly destructive and probably far more damaging than having some cows munching on weeds—it's not a fair comparison. The amount of land directly affected by sprawl and development is actually quite small. But I don't want anyone to accuse me of saying that sprawl isn't a problem. Where it occurs it is a problem and it needs to be controlled, guided or even kept from occurring at all. Where I differ from others is that I believe we need to control, guide or eliminate livestock production as well as sprawl. Neither is good for ecosystems or native species. It's not a choice of one or the other. We should be fighting both.
If you added in the effects of farming—and most of the agricultural land in the US is used to grow crops ultimately fed to livestock, not consumed directly by humans—livestock production is responsible for more endangered species than any other human activity, including urbanization.
Livestock production affects nearly 70 to 75 percent of the entire US. That includes the public and private range land used for grazing, the lands used for crop production like hay or corn and the lands used as pasture. It's a huge amount of land. By comparison urbanization only affects three percent of the US land area. So if you are talking about total ecological impacts, the effects of livestock production are far greater than sprawl simply based on geographical scales.
In California, only four percent of the landscape is developed according to analysis of aerial photos. I find the statistics compelling. I know that may be difficult to believe if you are living in Los Angeles or the San Francisco bay area, but think again. You have millions of acres in the desert, up in the Sierra Nevada and along the North Coast that is virtually uninhabited. Much of this is public land—half of California is public land—and will never be developed. Even most of the agricultural lands are used for livestock production—with hay and pasture accounting for more crop acreage than any other crops grown in the state.
When you look at other western states it is even more skewed towards livestock—for instance 95 percent of Montana has less than four people per square mile. That's frontier by the 1890 US census definition. Yes, there are some crowded and growing areas of the state—but these make up a small amount of the total—some 0.17 percent of the state's total land area. Most of Montana's nonforested land is used for agricultural production, including livestock. So most of the West is dominated by open space, not urbanization or sprawl.
Open space isn't necessarily good for wildlife or ecosystem protection. If that were the case, then Montana would not have any endangered species. There would be bison, wolves, grizzlies and sage grouse everywhere—but these species are on the verge of extinction.
Why? Because of sprawl? Hardly. Because of agriculture—primarily livestock production.
Even if you don't agree with me that livestock production is the greatest contributor to biological impoverishment, that doesn't mean that ranching can preserve open space. The only effective way to preserve open space is through zoning, purchase of development rights or outright purchase of land.
The problem with the cows vs. condos myth is that it saps public support for alternatives. If people think we can have our cake and eat it too—i.e. having ranching and the Cowboy Myth preserved and not have to cough up money for land acquisition or debate about zoning issues, they are going to avoid biting the bullet and seriously discussing these proven alternatives. Those promoting ranching as a means of preserving open space are actually fiddling while Rome burns.
Tim: Is public lands ranching dying a natural death and, if so, what can we do to help it along?
George: Yes it is dying—I would say the industry is already comatose and that is one reason why a strategy aimed at "preserving ranching" as a way to protect open space is both naive and ultimately doomed to failure.
Rising land prices around the West have effectively killed the western livestock industry. You can't buy land at today's prices and pay it off running cattle. That means that no young people can enter the business—unless they have outside money. That has several effects. Old ranchers as they retire are not being replaced. Secondly, it also makes it more difficult to pass on a ranch to family members. Even small ranches are now worth millions of dollars.
You are left without much choice but to sell it. In some places this means subdividing it. In other areas it means selling to some wealthy individual who runs the ranch as a "trophy" or "hobby." That is not all together a bad fate, since it keeps the land intact, but if you are rich you don't need to run cows.
I think there are several ways to hasten ranching's death. First, continued pressure on ranchers, particularly public lands ranchers, makes it less fun to be into ranching. For the wealthy and elite that are coming to dominate the western livestock business, making it less prestigious to be a rancher could effectively change the status of this occupation. It is somewhat like making it less desirable to be a slave owner. Once this is no longer socially acceptable, far fewer wealthy individuals will run cows on their lands. They might seek status in a different way—restoring ecosystems—as Ted Turner has done. We should try to shape the debate so that ecosystem restoration is what the wealthy do—not run cows.
Editors' Note: Stay tuned for our special "Blast From the Past" next issue when George reflects on the moral maturity of tree spiking.
© Earth First! Journal June-July 2001