Press "Enter" to skip to content

Needed: A Larger Cast for the Rangeland Drama

Essay by William Debuys

Grazing Reform – April 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

THE CONTINUING SHOW-DOWN between environmentalists and ranchers over cattle grazing in the West focuses on the wrong things, but as with many such shoving matches, most of the media like it better that way.

The conventional story line produces easy copy: Gore-Texed enviros defending endangered species face off against Stetsoned cowboys fighting for an American way of life. The stakes are high, the personalities appealing, and the well of conflict seems bottomless. But what if this two-character morality play really has three actors, and what if the third one finally got some lines?

The third actor, of course, is the land, and in ways neither enviros nor ranchers customarily acknowledge, changes in the land have accounted for much of the argument between them. Half a century ago, Aldo Leopold wrote, “Many historical events, hitherto explained solely in terms of human enterprise, were actually biotic interactions between people and land.” Taken to heart, Leopold’s observation casts new light on contemporary range wars.

Good data are scanty, but a few studies make the point. Take, for instance, a landscape history of the Jemez Mountains in northern New Mexico. Dr. Craig Allen (now with the U.S. Geological Survey) found that in the Jemez Range only 45 percent of the montane grasslands, meadows, and grassy savannas present in the mid-1930s still existed by the mid-1980s. Fully 55 percent of Jemez grasslands had been replaced by encroaching forests, woodlands, and shrublands. Judging from numerous studies elsewhere in the West that compare historical photographs with contemporary views of the same landscape, the experience of the Jemez is probably not the exception but the rule.

The result is a perfect recipe for conflict. If a fixed number of cattle must seek nourishment from a resource that is shrinking faster than 1 percent per year, of course they will crowd into smaller and smaller areas, especially along rivers and streams; of course they will compete ever more intensely with wildlife for food and space; of course their habitat-changing habits will affect what grassland and streamside remain.

The decline of grass in the landscape mosaic stems largely from the suppression of fire where fires once burned frequently. One might expect the livestock industry to insist on aggressive programs for prescribed burning on public lands, but industry leaders, so often vociferous about wolves and property rights, remain strangely silent.

Imagine if the directors of a bank ignored the steady withdrawal of half their institution’s deposits, fighting instead just to defend high interest rates on their loans. Shareholders would not tolerate that for long, but most ranchers seem to approve similar behavior in their leaders’ monomaniacal defense of stocking rates.

Many environmentalists, meanwhile, remain equally fixated. They fight to take cows off the land, ignoring the fact that merely removing cows will not return the land to a more naturalistic mosaic of grass, trees, and shrubs. Instead they emphasize that livestock helped prevent fires by consuming grasses and other fine fuels. True enough. But the reverse assumption, that grazing is incompatible with a healthy fire regime, is not necessarily true.

MANY PROGRESSIVE RANCHERS have successfully integrated fire cycles with their pasture rotations. Used well, fire affords more habitat for all grassland-dependent species from juncos to jackrabbits and curlews to cowboys. In a few areas of the West — but only a few –conservationists and ranchers have begun acting together on this knowledge.

The Malpai Borderlands Group in southeastern Arizona and the bootheel of New Mexico works with public and private landowners to implement a common fire plan for a vast area. In northern New Mexico, The Conservation Fund, in partnership with the Forest Service, the Northern New Mexico Stockman’s Association, and the Cooperative Extension Service, operates a 36,000-acre grazing allotment as a “grass bank.” Cattle from other national forest allotments graze on the grass bank while their “home” allotments are rehabilitated through the use of fire and other tools.

In most areas, however, the show-down continues, and management gridlock is the result. It is time for environmentalists to realize that they can get more landscapes burned back into balance by working with ranchers instead of against them. It is also time for the livestock industry to focus more on the condition of its capital asset, less on politics.

And the media need to give a voice to the third actor in the rangeland drama. As Leopold pointed out, the land speaks. All of us should listen.

William deBuys is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colo ( He directs The Conservation Fund’s Valle Grande Grass Bank and is the author of several books on western lands, including Salt Dreams, due out this fall.

High Country News