Fixing grazing policies

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Greenfire, Idaho
I think I know Jon Marvel is right, but I still can’t bring myself to agree with him. Subsidies as a matter of something I pay for have stopped bothering me. But Eric is right—a subsidy makes otherwise marginal land profitable, causing it to be ranched when it shouldn’t be. Ranching already has externalities, so theoretically it should be taxed. But taxes and subsidies get more complicated when the government is the one selling AUMs in the first place. And I don’t want to have to tell people their way of live isn’t viable. I’d rather kill a grassland than look Todd Nash in the eye and tell him the truth. What does that make me?
So maybe the solution is a gradual phase-out. Buy out willing ranchers, push for conservation easements, revoke corporate allotments (because who’s going to lose sleep over J.R. Simplot?) And I’ve just proposed the most politically infeasible solution since Carter tried to cut all those dams from the appropriations bill. But the gradual buy-out, maybe? Why is it so hard to get Congress to act when the economics are so clear? Ok, I know why, but I wish we had more fearlessness in Congress. More idealists—a critical mass so they wouldn’t have to sell out and swap favors to get anything done. More people like Alan Grayson. And god, I wish they would overturn Citizens United. But that won’t fix it. The system is inevitably going to work slowly and inefficiently and that’s ok. But not too stupidly. Maybe the 16thamendment was a bad idea. Maybe the people have too much power. But…grazing. I feel like smaller policy changes—fixing the tax incentives for conservation vs. ranching, allowing smaller cattle numbers to be run, retiring willing allotments—would help speed up a seemingly inevitable tide. Ranchers are growing old and getting out. And I don’t want to see the lifestyle go away, but it doesn’t make sense—economically or environmentally—in the West. Cows should stay east of the 100th meridian and all of us should probably eat less beef.

Uncomfortable truths in Nevada

Las Vegas is still growing. Las Vegas is in the middle of the desert. Las Vegas is running out of water.

Cows graze on almost all the public lands in Nevada. Land grazed by cows is easy to spot, covered in invasive grasses, cowpies, stream banks cut deep and straight with muddy hoof prints all the way to the bottom. The cost to run a cow and calf for a month on these lands is $1.35. On the allotment we visited today, 15,000 cows graze and the Bureau of Land Management takes in about $22,000 per year from the permitee. A recently constructed irrigation trough and pipeline on this land cost $400,000, paid for by the BLM. It’s full of algae with a dead bird wing buried somewhere under the muck.

Las Vegas wants to build a pipeline to Spring Valley to pump water from an underground aquifer. This water will go to feed its green lawns and the rainforests built inside casinos.

Nevada has a Senate seat up for reelection this fall. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, will face off against Sharon Angle. Reid has consistently supported gold mining in Nevada, pushing hard against reform of the General Mining Act of 1872. Because of this act, prospective gold miners can acquire a claim for $5 an acre on federal lands. If gold is found, they pay no royalties to the government.

Between 1951 and 1992, there were a total of 1,021 test of nuclear weapons conducted at the Nevada Test Site. One hundred of these were above ground. The radioactive fallout blew downwind into Utah and southern Nevada. Some of it ended up in Spring Valley.

In the East, where is rains, you measure land in cows per acre. In the West, where there is a desert, you measure in acres per cow. The math will give a solution between 25 and 150 acres.

A dumptruck full of gold ore will yield about one ring’s worth of gold. To get it out of the rock, you use cyanide. The waste from this process sits in ponds, sometimes lined, sometimes not. If the original prospector goes broke or can’t be found, the government pays to clean up the mining waste.

If Las Vegas takes the water out of Spring Valley, the land will dry up. The soil will become dust and the dust will become airborne. The dust is volcanic soil and is full of a carcinogen as potent as asbestos. The dust blew into the valley as fallout from the Nevada Test Site. The dust is full of tiny particles which have a knack for working their way into the moist linings of human lungs and staying there.

Sharon Angle, the Republican challenging Harry Reid for Senate, has called the separation of church and state “unconstitutional.”

Cows need water to drink. Cows need hay to eat and hay needs water to grow. You get water in the West by damming rivers or pumping it out of the ground.

Las Vegas is the fastest growing city in the United States. The Strip is covered in homeless men too resigned to ask for spare change. The neighborhoods outside feature fences topped with barbed wire and billboards advertising attorneys who can fight DUIs.

As climate change occurs, the West will become hotter and drier. Reservoirs will evaporate faster. River and stream flows will decrease because the glaciers on the mountains that feed them are disappearing.

About ninety percent of the population of Nevada lives in Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, or in Reno. You can’t get elected in Nevada unless you support what Clark County and Reno want. And right now, they want their pipeline.

Cows trample biotic soil crusts. These crusts are made of mosses, lichens and microorganisms. They hold soil together, retain moisture, increase the productivity of adjacent plants and fix nitrogen and carbon into the soil. Without them, the soils blow away and water evaporates faster. Without them, the land becomes more desert and less water. Cows need water. Las Vegas needs water. The people of Spring Valley need water.

Grazing: learning to see

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Escalante, Utah
context: During this week, we were working with Mary O’Brien, an ecologist with the Grand Canyon Trust. Mary was one of several ecologists we met who believed that cattle grazing on Western public lands was an environmental nightmare and is working to reduce the amount of land that’s grazed. Today, we went out on an actual grazing allotment to count cows and see what the land looked like.
I think today, I get it. I’ve seen Suzanne cry and Mary rant about riparian habitat and grazing. I’ve seen cows and incised channels. But today, wandering across a few miles of moonscape covered in hoof marks and cowpies, I saw a bit of what they see. The fence, built perhaps to keep cows away from part of the stream and the juniper bushes, was in decent shape, but the cows had access to the stream on both sides because they’d managed to erode a path down into the gully. The water was muddy and trampled to death.
I’m still having trouble being angry about it. Maybe because it’s hard to pinpoint a source. I don’t fault the individual rancher trying to make a living, though I have no sympathy for absentee billionaires or giant corporations who run cattle. Cows are far too docile and placid to be the objects of anger. And the political and bureaucratic clusterfuck seems difficult to pin on any particular person, law or agency. It’s a beast of its own, independent of individual human desires, although a product of them.
But I know it needs to change. I’m not as strident as Mary, though I feel the truth in her statement that some jobs or lifestyles cannot be justified because the cost to the earth is too high. I know absolutely that a rancher should be able to graze fewer cattle than an allotment allows for and should be able to sell it for conservations purposes if both parties are willing. But beyond that, it’s so hard to untangle. I worry about imperialism and outsourcing of negative consequences. If we eliminate the 2-3% of beef grazed on public lands here (and 2-3% of American beef is still a ton of cows), demand won’t follow the drop in supply. So we’ll import from Argentina or Brazil and eat cows with a huge carbon footprint grazed on pasture that used to be Amazonian rainforest before it was clearcut. We’ll have our land back and some smug satisfaction or feeling of grand victory, but I worry we’ll just be outsourcing the problem. So what, ethically, should I be eating? If I add a no-public-grazing clause to my vegetarian meat-eating ethics, I might as well just go back to no meat at all. I want to be healthy, which means no more tofu if I can help it, and I’m not the kind of girl who can live off of lentils. I love dairy, but that’s a curtain I’ve barely started to pull back, and I know I won’t like what I find. Someday, I want a house in Seattle with a backyard big enough for chickens and a goat. But until then, I still think I’m doing better eating cheese, raw milk and Thundering Hooves beef.