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The Road to Rangeland Reform

April 4, 2000
Peter B. McIntyre
In This Release
Public Lands  
As I began background work for this paper, my goal was to investigate a few recently proposed solutions to the problems caused by mismanagement of federal lands in the west for grazing purposes. In particular, I was intrigued by the idea of leveling the playing field for all categories of public-land users, allowing non-ranchers to bid on the use of federal property in the same way that ranchers do. Mark Muro’s columns in The Earth Times had introduced me to this idea, and he proved to be a willing source of information and suggestions. Having seen cattle and ranchers for most of my life in Texas, I hoped that I could just leap right into this subject without spending too much time on background details. After all, the merits of clear, well-reasoned solutions should be so robust and self-evident that they stand almost independent of the problems which they were designed to fix, right? Wrong.

Federal grazing policy is an issue of extraordinary complexity, and I soon discovered that interpreting and assessing the proposed solutions would require considerable familiarity with the extent and nature of the problems themselves. I set to work reading about the ecology of western rangelands and the federal policies which have given rise to the current plight of western residents, including plants and animals, human and non-human. Along with combing the literature on the subject, I talked to John Horning, the range specialist for a New Mexican environmental group, the WildEarth Guardians. He was a great help, and described to me his perspective on the evils of Great Basin grazing. I also corresponded with Carl Bock, a rangeland ecologist from Colorado, who has studied the effects of domestic grazers on native animals and plants for decades. The details that these two men shared with me and that I read were often horrifying, particularly those concerning riparian areas and the unique freshwater communities which had evolved in the west. “How could this have happened?” I wanted to know. The obvious place to look for answers to this question is the three key pieces of legislation which have addressed western public-land grazing in the last sixty years.

That brought me to several key sources for this paper. First, I learned that there is no substitute for reading the relevant legislation and its accompanying history. Despite the best attempts to suppress it, much sentiment lies beneath the surface of Congressional language, sentiment that is only available to the perceptive reader who becomes intimate with the bills themselves. In the case of recently-proposed public land use legislation, there is also an incredible stock of information and feeling to be found in the testimony presented to the Congressional committees examining the issue. Closely reading both the written and orally presented testimony from ranchers, environmentalists, and politicians accentuated the “people issues” which must be considered when we seek to change a system so heavily ingrained in the public mindset and entwined in the regional economy.

My final, and perhaps most important, source of fact, opinion, and perspective was former Governor of Wyoming Michael Sullivan. Governor Sullivan tested both my facts and my ideas, and, more than anyone else, forced me to recognize that the grazing issue involves too many people and too many facets of western life to be assigned a simple solution. He gave freely of his time and mind while a fellow at the Institute of Politics, and for that I am deeply indebted to him.

You, the reader, now know the source of the information and many of the ideas elaborated below. I hope that you enjoy the journey-for me it was an protracted epiphany-as much as I have.

Read the Road to Rangeland Reform (PDF)