Thieves of Grass
Christopher Ketcham’s “The Great Republican Land Heist” [Letter from Nevada, February] exposes a side of the West that few people ever see: the ecological devastation caused by the political stranglehold maintained by public-lands ranchers. The article focuses on Nevada, but 250 million acres of public land across the American West suffer from destruction caused by the grazing of privately owned cattle and sheep.
Behind the public-lands grazing program lies more than $123 million in tax subsidies, much of it benefitting the likes of Barrick Gold and Newmont Mining, two international mining giants whose affiliates hold permits to graze more than 1.5 million acres of Nevada public lands. These days, behind many ten-gallon hats is a $10,000 watch.
Although the article’s title rightly calls out Republican politicians for their tireless defense of the livestock industry, not many Democrats in Congress or in the White House are willing to stand up to the industry, either. If Democrats want to continue to claim to represent a sustainable future and a resilient ecosystem, elected officials better start walking the talk.
Executive Director, Western Watersheds Project
Having spent more than thirty-five years as a rangeland-management specialist with the U.S. Forest Service, I can say that Ketchum’s depiction of public-lands grazing does not match my own experience. Most ranchers who graze livestock on public lands are environmental stewards who regard the rangelands as a valuable renewable resource. Modern rangeland-management practices maintain and enhance ecological health.
Current research shows that private ranches dependent on public-lands grazing provide open space and biologically diverse landscapes. Ranchers, environmentalists, and land-management agencies have united to improve the health and well-being of the land and community. Why not highlight the successes of these new pioneers?
Ketcham provides a much-needed wake-up call about the effort by the American Legislative Exchange Council to transfer public lands to state control. But he’s wrong to claim that the damage done in the past by overgrazing is best remedied by getting rid of ranching entirely. Controlled grazing is fostering healthy land on many ranches today, providing essential water for wildlife and saving precious open space.
Former member of the Resource Advisory Council, Arizona Bureau of Land Management
Environmental measures that purport to protect Western lands might in fact be playing a role in their destruction. As a Sierra Club activist who encourages ranchers to work with environmentalists, I have compared old photographs of land grazed by livestock with photos of the same areas taken decades after grazing was discontinued. In most cases the damage that has resulted from “protecting” the land outstrips the damage done by grazing.
Who is really ruining the West? As far as I can tell, it’s those who sell political solutions that turn us against one another.
As a resident of Canada, where the federal government and many of my compatriots are determined to extract every ounce of bitumen possible from the expansive Alberta tar sands, I share Rebecca Solnit’s environmental concerns [“The War of the World,” Easy Chair, February].
Ms. Solnit ponders why “Americans . . . don’t quite believe in change.” North Americans don’t believe in change because First World economists rarely challenge their own assumptions (our own prime minister is a formally educated economist). Until influential economists seriously reconsider whether increased production need be central to economic stability, citizens will be urged to consume more and more unnecessary junk, and the tar-sands taps will remain open for business.
Vancouver, British Columbia
Solnit is understandably skeptical about our ability to reverse the mining and drilling industries’ barrage of climate-change denials. But a similar war has already been won — against Big Tobacco.
When I was growing up, few thought the tobacco industry would ever be brought before the courts. Like mining and drilling interests today, tobacco companies fought for decades to refute scientific evidence by paying for their own studies. And yet a 1998 settlement with forty-six states forced tobacco companies to pay billions of dollars in damages; the companies continue to pay hundreds of millions of dollars per year.