Press "Enter" to skip to content

Going Virtual, Part 3

By John Mattingly

Ballot Measure 1A passed handily in the November 6 election, meaning there will be a small sales tax increase to raise an estimated one million dollars to fund activities that will protect forests, waters and open spaces.

On November 5, Commissioner Felt offered a guest opinion in the Mountain Mail advocating for 1A. His own experience with community-based initiatives has been positive, and I found myself being convinced of the potential of this grass roots effort.

Commissioner Felt wrote about standing in a circle at the base of Shavano with public lands managers and local ranchers on “hard, bare ground, a former meadow denuded of vegetation by primitive camping and recreational overuse.” And this bare ground was “all that was left of this longtime rancher’s once productive grazing allotment.”

At the end of my last piece, I warned against bovine madness, the tendency to wax romantic about the life of ranchers and cattle. While it is true that cattle harvest complex carbohydrates that humans can’t, they also remove more nutrients from the soil than they return, and beef at the market has consumed huge amounts of water and energy while increasing greenhouse gases and clogging consumer arteries.

So let’s take a more jaundiced view of Commissioner Felt’s observation. First, the acres granted in a grazing allotment are an order of magnitude greater than the areas suitable for camping, so to suggest that a camping area represents all that was left of the allotment is a Trump-worthy doozy. It typically takes several days on horseback and soil tests to understand the condition of a grazing allotment.

Second, anyone who has hiked and camped in Central Colorado knows that many campsites and trails and riparian areas are trampled by cattle. When measuring damage to public lands, all users are pretty much tied for the lead, though the higher octane groups can clearly inflict more damage more quickly with four-wheelers that have morphed into mini-monster trucks.

Public lands managers will, over time, need to restrict all human and livestock activity on public lands to keep those lands from being denuded of the very qualities that draw people to them. It will take twenty years – maybe less – but we will see the gradual diminution, to the point of elimination, of nearly all human activity on public lands.

Prediction: public lands will slowly be conserved for the production of high-quality, virtual experiences available as an app on your phone. It’s wasteful and inefficient to traffic and gawk all over the public lands, bringing pollution and leaving trash among larger and larger human footprints.

Many national parks already restrict or even prohibit traffic on the public lands. Instead, the trend is for every park to have a theater or a virtual access center so that you can experience any of the great natural wonders of the wild at any time of year, in any light, at your personal convenience. Eventually, this will be accessed by an app that holograms you into the wild without leaving a footprint or stepping over a cow pizza.

Some say you cannot replace the experience of actually being in the wild, or in nature. Nor can you have an actual experience of the wild if it is (a) no longer wild because it is occupied by taming human forces, or (b) overused to extinction.

(People also discounted my prediction in 1981 that “Humans will, in twenty years or so, have computers in a portable, wireless phone.”) An excellent use of the 1A funds would be to create high-quality, downloadable virtual experiences around Chaffee County. Build a Virtual Access Center to offer virtual experiences of every stripe, giving people an opportunity unavailable in the actual world. One tool in effective growth management is to virtualize as much as possible to reduce the energy and resources required to move actual bodies around and about. Virtuality’s greatest virtue is elbow room without impact.

Finally, as to grazing allotments. Public grazing lands in the West are lands the federal government retained at statehood for waterways, railroads, easements, parks and monuments, and other public purposes, but the lion’s share was land the feds could not give away under the Homestead Act. In short, it was land that no one wanted because its extractive value was beyond the capacity of an individual due to terrain, location, or any number of limiting factors in an arid region. Even the lands that were homesteaded required railroads, reservoirs, roads and rural electrification to make a real go of it.

Public lands are thus owned by the federal government, which titrates down to us as small drops for “the public,” but possession and control of those public lands is in the hands of governmental agencies. In Colorado, roughly 40 percent of the land area is public.

Grazing allotments are a privilege, not a property right. The same is true of camping and recreating. Public land does not mean anyone from the public can go out and do whatever they want on it. We agree, collectively, to a set of rules as to how that public land is to be used.

Grazing allotments are somewhat of an apparition from a time long-gone, about 120 years ago, when it became obvious that west of the 100th Meridian, the 160-acre homestead was not large enough to be an economic unit. Wesley Powell pegged the number at 2,640 acres required for a homestead in the West. But to expand the 160-acre number would have caused an uproar from those who already had the 160-acre patents. So after years of confusion, range wars and general wildness, the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 established the system of base property – the homestead capable of supporting livestock in winter – matched with summer grazing on public lands.

Until roughly the mid-1970s, ranchers enjoyed relatively relaxed oversight on the grazing of public land, and grazing allotments wove themselves into the system with such confidence that banks considered them collateral for real estate and operating loans. There were abuses and there were also stories of commendable stewardship.

By the 1980s, however, a trend commenced to slowly wean livestock from public lands grazing, and that trend is still in progress. As citizens and agencies get together to manage growth in Chaffee County, there will hopefully be a reasonable perspective about the place of cattle in conservation equations. While cattle can graze off some of the undergrowth kindling in a forest, cattle also contribute to erosion and other negatives when externalized costs such as climate chaos, and favorable tax treatments such as depreciation, are given good weight.

The future will create virtual herds and virtual ranching experiences for consumers of virtual beef. If you think that’s a joke, wait twenty years and see who laughs …

John Mattingly cultivates prose, among other things, and was most recently seen near Moffat.