The Rancher Subsidy

The West's fabled ranchers are in trouble. The damage done to the land by cattle has become a contentious environmental issue. The ranchers' greatest enemy, though, is the free market
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WHEN I first called to arrange a visit to his ranch, in the high desert country of central Oregon, Tom Campbell, a wiry man of sixty-eight, was hesitant. "I'm like a cigarette butt," he said. "Not a hell of a lot left." Campbell's remark was at least half in jest; several neighboring younger ranchers say they'd think twice about tangling with this man. But it's an apt description of the future of his territory. Once the symbol of America, the land of possibility, today's cowboy country is sorry stuff—fenced in, bereft of water, often grazed and trampled to dusty hardpan, challenged at almost every fence line by environmentalists grumbling about disappearing wildlife.

Such troubles provoke continual hand-wringing about the rancher's imminent demise. The truth is that ranchers won't be disappearing anytime soon. Even in the post-industrial age the ranching community still possesses significant resources—vast quantities of land, and the leading role in America's self-image as tough and pioneering. When these assets are combined, they create tremendous political pull. As proof, look what happened to the Clinton Administration's efforts, two years in a row, to raise the fees the government charges for grazing on federal lands, virtually all of which lie in the eleven continental states west of Texas, making up a third of that territory. Ranchers who use federal land have long paid less than a third of the average private-land rate, and the increase proposed by the Administration was slight. Perhaps surprisingly, the group receiving this favor has always been a relatively small player in the nation's beef industry: the eleven western states produce less than a fifth of the nation's beef. Even so, western ranching interests beat the Clinton team handily. No one now wants to fight another losing battle with the rancher. Maybe he simply needs another set of survival methods—ones better for both the ranching community and the public at large.

Tom Campbell's ranch sits in the heart of the John Day River Basin, a 536-mile river network that constitutes one of the longest undammed systems in the country. Fishery experts consider the John Day critical spawning grounds for the Pacific Coast's wild salmon, a fish that is central to the identity of this part of the country and whose decline throughout the Northwest has been making local headlines since the 1970s. Salmon pose a challenge that previous species in trouble never have—first because northwesterners care about them so passionately, and second because solving the salmon's problems requires the most drastic and complex changes that ranchers have faced in decades.

Dams are the biggest bullies in salmon streams. (Often when dams were created, builders included cement fish "ladders" to help salmon swim upstream from the ocean during spawning season; strangely, they rarely put screens on the other side, which would have kept young fish traveling back to the sea from being chewed up in the turbines like hamburger.) However, now that salmon are in peril, experts are scrutinizing every cause they can find. These include logging, overfishing, ravenous seals and sea lions, water pollution, and, finally, cattle tromping through upland spawning streams.

Campbell would be happy to help migrating salmon if he could find an economical way to do it. Unfortunately, being rough on rangeland streams is embedded in a rancher's standard routine. Consider the conditions on Campbell's ranch in an exceptionally wet year—1993, which saw the end of seven years of drought. One day that year in late summer, when the range has normally turned dry and yellow, many fields around the John Day were a thick green, and the John Day's North Fork, which borders Campbell's property, ran full and wide. On the far side of the river, where no cattle graze, the stream bed was in robust health—lined with overhanging banks where fish hide, and shaded by willows and other shrubbery, which keep the river cool and attract the insects fish eat. The near side, along Campbell's pastureland, provided a different picture. This shore had been grazed each year for decades, and the banks had long since been trampled and eroded into wide, stony shallows.

THE problem here, and on most western rangeland streams, is the beef cow's table manners. Cattle aren't native to this country—they come from Europe, where a wetter, greener, and more resilient landscape than that prevailing in the West accustomed them to a sedentary grazing style, earning them the nickname "vacuum feeders." Their American descendants are especially rude. Heavily domesticated, safe from predators owing to the government's killing program, the American beef cow behaves like a spoiled houseguest, frequently hanging out along rangeland stream banks all day long. The West's native grazers—primarily elk, deer, antelope, and bighorn sheep—eat in a roving, less intensive manner. (Buffalo, which were quite rough on the land, ventured into only Montana and Wyoming of the eleven western states.)

By now the history and behavior of cattle have provoked an entire industry dedicated to kicking them off public lands in the West. "The livestock industry is the last wildlife-genocide program in the United States," says Bruce Apple, the director of an Oregon-based environmental organization appropriately called Rest the West. "All-out war is declared on a diversity of species every day to benefit a single industry."

To be fair, the crops ranchers raise for their cattle have actually been good for some wildlife species, particularly big game such as elk, deer, and antelope. It's some of the smaller inhabitants—birds, tortoises, and ferrets, to name a few—that cattle have decimated. Yet the acrimony in this war, and its costs and casualties to date, make one wonder whether the cowboy life has simply become obsolete. On an ideal planet cattle would be restricted to our green eastern states or returned to the greener continent from which they came, leaving the arid West to the animals that are native to it. But the interlopers are here now—about 45 million beef cattle roam some 870 million acres, more than two thirds of the land mass in our seventeen westernmost states. These animals live on roughly 200,000 cattle ranches. Many of the biggest are financially marginal sideline investments run by wealthy enterprises, including the Mormon Church, or by tycoons such as William Hewlett and David Packard, of the Hewlett-Packard Corporation. Most, however, are run by small ranching families whose primary asset is land the profitability of which is questionable—for running cattle or doing anything else.

One simple answer would be to fence cattle out of the streams—a step that Campbell has taken along the most vulnerable mile of his riverbank. But fencing every troubled stream won't work. The resulting labyrinth of barbed wire would be harmful to wildlife, troublesome to maintain, and costly. Good fencing can cost $8,000 to $12,000 a mile. And with every fence comes the cost of pumping and piping replacement water to thirsty cattle—and the bureaucratic trouble. Ironically, western-state water laws have traditionally encouraged ranchers to skip all this and walk their cattle directly into fragile streams.

IN search of solutions, I paid a visit to Clint Gray, a ranch manager known around the valley for unusually ecological approaches to ranching. The operation that Gray was running at the time (recently another ranch manager, George Hixson, took it over) is unusual—there are no huge ranch headquarters, no shops full of tractors and machinery, no stacks of hay. There are just a few scattered buildings, including an old wooden house with a sagging front porch, which sit in a small green basin high above the main valley.

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