What exactly are we hoping to sustain in applying the term sustainability to ranching? Without definition, sustainability could just be circular reasoning: "that which persists is sustainable". But this is not what is meant by any of the many proponents of rangeland-based livestock production. Dr. Sayre offers partial answers to this question and prompts to reader/listener to further thinking in this essay from 2005 read here by Tip.
AoR 91: Nathan Sayre essay: "Prospects and Tools for Sustainable Ranching in the Western U.S."
Prospects and Tools for Sustainable Ranching in the Western US
Nathan F. Sayre
The latest Conservation Biology contains a forum on the subject of sustainability. The
first piece provokes the others by arguing that the term is too vague, outdated and
unpalatable to serve as an effective basis for the conservation movement now. The
authors propose substituting “land health” for sustainability. Several of the responses
concur with parts of the analysis but dispute the conclusion that some other term is
needed, or that land health is any better.
Certainly, sustainability in an abstract sense is hopelessly vague. Taken alone, it can only
be defined tautologically: that which is sustainable persists, while that which is
unsustainable does not. The longer something has been around, presumably, the more
sustainable it must be. This not only lacks content, it also limits us to viewing
sustainability retrospectively, when the point, usually, is to try to anticipate or plan for
the future. Something that has persisted may nonetheless vanish in the future.
Sustainability becomes meaningful, though, when its referent is more carefully specified:
what exactly is being evaluated as to its sustainability (or lack thereof)? What are we
trying to sustain, over what time periods? What are the processes that sustain it, and how
do those processes interact? I want to try to answer these questions in relation to ranching
in the Western US. I believe that western ranching is both more sustainable than is often
assumed and yet highly vulnerable to current trends and forces. The threats it faces are
more social than ecological, and the tools for sustaining ranching must therefore be
primarily social in nature.
Sorting out the ecological from the social can be difficult. Ranching has been around
longer than most of the livelihoods and land uses that we presently have in the West, such
as suburban development and tourism. It has outlasted beaver trapping and bison hunting.
Beaver and bison look like cases where an activity was ecologically unsustainable. But in
truth it wasn’t the activities per se that were unsustainable but the way they were
practiced in the 19th century, which can be traced to economic forces and property
relations rather than ecology. They might have been sustainable, had they been done
differently. Instead, they exceeded thresholds of resilience in the ecological systems they
exploited, and beyond those thresholds there was no way they could persist.
As practiced in the late 19th century, ranching also was unsustainable, again for reasons
that were as much economic as ecological. But the excesses of the cattle boom did not
permanently render ranching impossible. The ecological conditions for it were altered
and weakened, but not destroyed. The way it is practiced today is radically different from
the way it was practiced then, even if we call it by the same name.
Ranching has persisted by changing, and this forces us to specify further just what we are
concerned to sustain. Jim Corbett, who authored the original “agenda” for the Malpai
Borderlands Group, defined the goal as “the health and unreduced diversity of the native
biotic community.” He pointed out that “ranching is now the only livelihood that is based
on human adaptation to wild biotic communities.” It is this interdependence of livelihood
and landscape that is critical. Both are dynamic, but neither can persist without the other
under current social and economic conditions.
It is often claimed that ranching is not sustainable in the ecological sense, and sometimes
its economic decline is construed as evidence of this. Yet from an ecological perspective,
range livestock production is probably the most sustainable part of our nation’s beef
industry, and more sustainable than most of our agriculture. When grass grows by itself,
without plowing or fertilizer or pesticides or irrigation, and livestock eat the grass and
grow and reproduce, and humans harvest the livestock for food—what could be closer to
the evolutionary trajectories of grasses, domesticated stock and people than that? Any
agriculture that does not require fossil fuel inputs is, today, remarkably sustainable.
Of course, ranching has not always stayed within the bounds defined by this simple
model, and damage has been done. My point is simply that ranching can be ecologically
sustainable in ways that, say, modern feedlot fattening and modern corn production
cannot. It is sustainable, provided that resilience thresholds are not exceeded—provided,
for example, that the grass recovers from being grazed. I’ll return to this later.
The threats to ranching today are not fundamentally ecological ones. The forces that
appear set to end it—to declare its unsustainability in practice—are economic and
political in nature. “Once upon a time in rural studies,” writes William Reibsame Travis,
“population increases meant only one thing: a growing farm, ranch, timber, or mining
economy. Now we find those economies dying, yet all but a handful of rural counties in
the West growing; indeed, on average, they’re growing faster than metro counties.”
According to government statistics, about one million acres per year have gone out of
livestock production in the eight intermountain states for the past 40 years.
“This gentrifying range,” Reibsame Travis notes, “is tough to figure out.” Tough as to its
present complexion, yes, but not as to its underlying historical and economic causes.
Our system of administering, managing and valuing western rangelands is 100 years old
this year. It was formulated by Teddy Roosevelt’s Public Lands Commission, whose
1905 report led directly to the creation of the USDA-Forest Service and its system of
grazing permits. The commission had three members: Gifford Pinchot, the first head of
the Forest Service; Frederick Newell, the first commissioner of the Reclamation Service;
and W.A. Richards, Commissioner of the General Land Office. They based their
recommendations in part on the system of leasing that Texas had adopted for its state
lands beginning in 1883. A similar system was prescribed for Arizona and New Mexico
state lands in their enabling acts in 1910. Later, under the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934
and the Bureau of Land Management, the same basic system was extended to the
remaining federal lands in the West.
Call this system the Western Range. It has persisted for a century, and it is deeply
ingrained in our laws, ideas and values of western rangelands, as well as in the
management practices of ranchers and land management agencies. It was built, however,
on a foundation that can no longer sustain it.
The mandate of the Public Lands Commission said nothing about ranching. Its assigned
goal, rather, was settlement: “to recommend such changes [in land laws] as are needed to
effect the largest practical disposition of the public lands to actual settlers who will build
permanent homes upon them…” Sustainable settlement, so to speak.
Ranching became the focus of their report by default. “The great bulk of the vacant
public lands throughout the West are unsuitable for cultivation under the present known
conditions of agriculture, and so located that they can not be reclaimed by irrigation.
They are, and probably always must be, of chief value for grazing.”
Everything else about the Western Range flowed from this premise-prediction. The goal
was settlement, and grazing was the only means of achieving it—at the time, certainly,
and as far as they could foresee into the future. And it is this premise that is now false.
The highest value of private western rangelands is not grazing but real estate
development, and for federal lands it is recreation.
The Western Range assumed that with no prospect of land use change, ranchers would
have every incentive to steward their private and leased rangelands for long-term forage
productivity. This would align private and public interests, just as leases tied together
public and private lands. The more secure their leasehold, the stronger the incentive.
The option of development unties these bonds, in theory at least. If you plan to sell out,
and if developers plan to blade homesites and roads anyway, what difference does it
make if you degrade the range in the meantime? Fortunately, most ranchers don’t think
this way to begin with. If profit were their only goal, they wouldn’t still be in ranching.
If society’s goal were still simply to settle the West with permanent homes, there would
be no need to talk about ranching at all. This is indeed where we appear to be headed. It
is as though maximum settlement were still our goal, and we’ve found a new and better
way to do it, one for which ranching is largely irrelevant.
In Reibsame Travis’s terms, the New West consists of city sprawls, which are
predominantly suburban in character; surrounded by an ex-urban sphere, which gives
way to the gentrifying range. Big blocks of federal commons comprise about half of the
land, and resort zones dot the region, often located within or near the most spectacular of
the federal commons.
In this New West, ranching appears relictual, an artifact left over from an earlier period.
Ranching is economically irrational, at least until you sell the place out of ranching.
Ranch owners, whatever their skills, values or motivations, are holding lands whose
market value already stipulates land use change, sooner or later. No wonder they defend
their property rights so strenuously.
If ranching no longer appears sustainable, it is because the premise on which the Western
Range was built is no longer valid. Many rangelands have degraded, becoming less
productive for livestock production, and the minimum size of a viable ranch operation
has steadily increased over the past hundred years. But even if the land had not changed,
the price of land today would still exceed what livestock alone could justify from a
simple economic point of view. According to Allen Torell’s recent research, to take one
example, ranch prices in New Mexico are about six times their agricultural value. Once
upon a time, these lands did support more than six times the current number of stock, but
that was precisely what made nineteenth century ranching unsustainable.
What we are watching—what ranchers are living through—is the messy playing out of
this contradiction between an inherited set of rules, values and practices, on the one hand,
and a fundamentally changed political-economic landscape on the other. Market forces
are in the process of developing the half of the West that is private land, and some
environmentalists are prepared to trade that for the end of grazing on the half that is
publicly owned. The battles between ranchers and environmentalists over public lands
have abetted the conversion of private lands, if only by distracting attention from it.
The Western Range is now like a leaking lifeboat: a major problem, but one we cannot
simply abandon. By linking public and private lands together, economically and
administratively, it has helped prevent the conversion of hundreds of millions of acres of
land to more intensive uses. It has kept the West less fragmented and closer to its native
vegetation than any other part of the continental US. But to maintain these legacies, and
to sustain ranching rather than simply settlement, we have to develop an alternative set of
rules, values and practices, and somehow graft them onto the Western Range or
incrementally put them in its place. We have to rebuild the ship while continuing to sail
This process has already begun at countless locations across the West. People are
working diligently to craft new rules, to articulate new values, and to implement new
practices that are adequate to the new landscape. I expect everyone here is familiar with
at least one such effort. I know a handful of them well, and a couple of dozen in less
These efforts seem always to be local, grassroots affairs, concerned with a watershed,
valley, or similar-sized landscape. Perhaps this is because reform of the Western Range
as a whole is hostage to federal-level political stalemates. Or, perhaps, because no single
solution will work across such a diverse region: only practices tailored to particular
circumstances of ecology, economics, politics and personalities can possibly succeed. I
think both are true, and together they explain a common feature of all the efforts I’m
aware of: the central importance of private landowners, and particularly ranchers. Federal
agencies cannot lead such efforts precisely because they are federal agencies. They can
help or hinder them, but they cannot lead them.
What are the tools available today to sustain ranching? What are the pieces with which to
rebuild the ship? Judging from the efforts underway, I would mention the following:
Money. This is of course a tool for almost any purpose, but its role in the ranching
situation is unusual. A lack of money, after all, is what most often triggers land use
conversion: a ranch gets too far into debt, or inheritance issues force its sale, or the
temptation to cash out to development becomes too strong. In general, once a ranch has
been capitalized at residential real estate prices, it is effectively too late to prevent it from
subdividing sooner or later.
But this just highlights the extent to which ranch owners have resisted the economic
rationality of today’s landscape. Fifty percent of public lands ranches, according to the
massive recent study by Gentner and Tanaka, are supported by outside income or wealth.
This is not a new phenomenon. Thirty-three years ago, Arthur Smith and William Martin
found that 80 percent of Arizona ranchers (in a random sample of 89) had outside jobs or
income to help support their ranches. Access to non-ranch jobs, they suggested, might be
the key to keeping ranching alive. If one were to measure these private subsidies and add
them to the opportunity costs of not subdividing, one might well find that ranchers
subsidize ranching to a much larger extent than do federal and state grazing and tax
policies. Some conservation NGOs talk of the need for ranchers to diversify their income
sources—the fact is that most already have.
The money that is sustaining ranching today is private money. Can it continue to do so
for much longer? Maybe. But the costs of entry, as land values rise, make ranching ever
more exclusively the domain of those who inherit a ranch or those who bring large
quantities of capital into it from other pursuits. How long these two categories of people
will hold out is impossible to say, and without the former the latter look less and less like
the ranchers we thought we were concerned to sustain. The outside capital keeps ranches
afloat at the cost, generally, of continuing to raise the value of ranches. There is a need to
supplement these sources of money in ways that reduce the costs of entry.
Conservation easements. When conservation easements are exchanged for cash, they can
help a ranch weather a period of poor returns or expand its land base. More
fundamentally, easements can re-establish the validity of the assumption built into the
Western Range. In theory at least, an easement that prohibits development forces the
market to value the ranch on the basis of its agricultural productivity.
There is not nearly as much money available for easements as there should be. From a
simple fiscal perspective, easements are an amazing bargain for the public. Ex-urban
development is almost always a money-losing proposition for counties and
municipalities, and any long-term certainty about land use makes planning more efficient
and effective. The ecological benefits of unfragmented land are perhaps even more
valuable, but they needn’t even figure into the equation for easements to make good
public sense. Owning and managing land well is expensive; even if public agencies could
do it, it would cost a lot more than letting private parties do it instead.
People. The idea of sustainable ranching does not have many opponents, except among
those who consider it a contradiction in terms. The challenge lies in making it happen,
and the most powerful tool for this is people. Ranchers are accustomed to cooperating
with each other, as neighbors for example, and they are remarkably good at voicing their
collective will in conventional political situations. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence,
and some scholarly evidence, that ranching landscapes persist where ranchers collectively
believe that they all can and will persist, together.
In the New West, however, it seems increasingly clear that non-ranchers must also be
part of the collective effort to sustain ranching. Agency personnel need to be involved,
whether as lessors of grazing lands or as regulators of wildlife, water, fire, or some other
resource. NGOs are important potential partners, for their resources, expertise,
connections and reputations. Scientists are critical, because their work can resolve or at
least moderate tensions between other parties. And the general public needs to be
involved, or at least they need to feel welcome to get involved if they wish.
For all of these non-rancher groups, the quality of personal interactions is extraordinarily
important. People will not work together if they do not feel some personal fulfillment in
it. This requires both that collective efforts yield some positive results, however modest,
and that a sense of trust and enthusiasm develop over time. Collaboration does not work
because people tell themselves it’s a good idea; some formal “common ground” is not
sufficient by itself. It works when they enjoy the actual activities of working together and
feel rewarded in it.
Knowledge. One of the reasons collaboration is needed is that so many more kinds of
knowledge are needed than was previously the case. Look at successful efforts to sustain
ranching, and you’ll find people with expert knowledge in business and law, real estate
and wildlife, water, endangered species, fire, marketing, communications, non-profit
administration, fundraising and so on. How to access such expertise efficiently—when
you need it, for as long as you need it, but no longer—is a major challenge.
Less obvious but as important is the experiential knowledge of ranchers themselves. For
various reasons, this knowledge has rarely been written down. Look at the scholarly
literature, and it appears we know more about the ecological knowledge of African and
Asian pastoral groups—some of whom scarcely exist any more—than we do of American
Judging from ranchers I’ve interviewed, their knowledge is tightly linked to the lands
they have managed; many are convinced that what they’ve learned may have no
relevance anywhere else. Even if they are right about that, there is a need to document
ranchers’ experiential knowledge, both to help non-ranchers understand that ranching is a
complex art and to help researchers troubleshoot their models and identify patterns of
There is also a need for new knowledge generated by scientific research. Our hyperspecialized
academy has produced a lot of knowledge about discrete subjects, but much
less about interactions among multiple subjects. We know a lot about fire, and a lot about
some endangered species, but we know very little about fire effects on endangered
species. We know a lot about grazing effects on vegetation, but surprisingly little about
the interactive effects of grazing and fire, or grazing and climate. Our knowledge base
regarding rural residential development is paltry compared to the extent of that land use.
Because of the cattle boom’s notorious destructiveness, almost every endangered species
listing includes grazing as a “cause of decline in the species.” Even where such a link can
be firmly established for the cattle boom, however, the issue of current impacts may be
far from certain.
Put these last two tools together—people with diverse knowledges working
together—and sustainable ranching becomes much more likely. Creative solutions to
management conflicts can be identified and tried, provided there is a general sense of
good faith about it—faith that we will learn from the effort and that results will be
incorporated into further innovations. Research can be done that spans specializations and
addresses pressing management issues in a timely fashion.
Flexibility. The Western Range contained another critical flaw, one that has more to do
with ecology. It demanded too much uniformity, over both space and time. Spatially, it
sought a single framework for the entire West, to match the scale of federal land
management agencies. Temporally, it sought uniformity in stocking rates (carrying
capacities) for each allotment, each ranch, year after year. Generally, those rates proved
to be too high during droughts and, arguably, unnecessarily restrictive during wet years.
This was a perfect recipe for chronic struggle between lessees and agencies. It also meant
that grasses didn’t recover from grazing during droughts, and that sometimes thresholds
of resilience were crossed.
I believe that documenting ranchers’ knowledge would uncover countless examples of
ranchers learning the importance of flexibility the hard way. Some, for example, have
learned to make their stocking decisions after the grass has grown, instead of beforehand,
and to adjust their herd sizes accordingly. The monitoring method of “animal days per
acre” is a good example of a tool that facilitates flexibility, by allowing repeated, rapid
assessments of forage supply and continuous, incremental improvement in accuracy.
Flexibility must also extend to the social processes of ranching: The flexibility, for
example, to work with a variety of people, including people who are different or
unfamiliar, in order to try things that are new or unusual. Range ecologists increasingly
recognize that management needs to be opportunistic, because certain treatments or
practices may be effective only if implemented under particular, fleeting circumstances.
This cannot happen unless the various parties involved—ranchers, agencies, scientists,
environmentalists—are organized and prepared to act quickly. The ecological diversity of
western rangelands will require a greater social diversity and flexibility than has been the
norm in the past.
Fire. Altered fire regimes have been a critical factor in long-term degradation of many
rangelands over the past century. Because the Western Range was implemented first and
foremost through the Forest Service, grazing management became a tool for fire
suppression, in practice if not necessarily in policy. It was during droughts that fires were
most likely to occur, and grasses provided the fine fuels necessary for small fires to grow
into large ones. Simply by allowing grazing to continue at officially permitted levels
during droughts, forest officials could reduce fine fuel loads across enormous areas. Aldo
Leopold recognized this pattern, and its ecological flaws, as early as 1924.
Today there is virtual consensus that restoring fire to these lands is necessary—if not
sufficient—for conservation. Yet the presumption remains—in policies, in agency
culture, and in public sentiment—that fires must be put out. As more and more houses are
built in remote (or previously remote) settings, the life and property risks associated with
fire rise exponentially. But fire is inevitable in drought-prone, semiarid landscapes. The
longer we suppress them the more devastating they are likely to be when they ultimately
return. Allowing them to burn with some regularity (once every 5-15 years, say) actually
reduces the risk of catastrophic damage. This should be the norm across much of the
West—not the exception, as it is now, limited to a few wilderness areas and national
parks. Ranchers and The Nature Conservancy are, from my research in the Southwest,
almost the only parties actively and persistently working to make this vision a reality. It
will not happen on the scale that is needed without a complete reversal in the habits,
assumptions and practices of the public at large.
The prospects for sustainable ranching in the 21st century West will vary widely,
depending on local circumstances, regional trends and national policies. Perhaps the most
difficult question is one of scale: Can ranching survive on isolated patches of
land—particular watersheds or valleys, the scale at which local groups can craft new
social conditions for it—while the surrounding landscape fragments and develops? Is
Western ranching dependent on a single lifeboat, or are there many, some of which may
sink without endangering the others?
Dr. Sayre's website at UC-Berkeley
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