Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Removing Hoofed Locusts from the Public Trough

By Andy Kerr

Column #2 - Go to next column

Length: 976 words

Published: 15 August 1996, Wallowa County Chieftain

If we want—and society does want—to restore streams, bring back salmon, un-endanger species, restore soil productivity and reduce government spending; then livestock must go from our public lands.

I won't expound further on the ecological demerits of livestock, though their sins be plentiful. Rather, let's look at some industry trends and project them into the future and propose a fair and equitable solution.

The peak numbers of US cattle was 132 million in 1975. Today it's 103 million and the same amount of beef is being produced. In 1980 54¢ of each meat dollar went for beef; today it's 44¢. Chicken and pork ("the other white meat") have captured market share. The market for beef is also declining at a relatively steady 1% per year for the past 15 years.

Packer concentration (squeezes the producers), imports (those cheap Mexican pesos), and lower consumer demand (one can live longer by avoiding red meat) are all factors, but the biggest factor presently is the excessive cattle numbers. Herd reductions are inevitable; the rate and magnitude will vary with the price of grain and other factors.

Market demand will further decrease as more consumers realize that beef kills. While some understand the health effects of ingesting antibiotics and hormones in their burgers and steaks, most know of the high fat content of beef. As consumers find that they can live longer by satisfying their carnivorous cravings with poultry and pork, many switch their meat from red to white.

Marketing campaigns promoting beef can mitigate some of the declining consumption, as long as old Hollywood actors with coronary bypasses aren't used. It works with cigarettes, candy and cookies. For foods, today's marketing is pushing reformulated low-or no-fat varieties; something impossible with cattle. Have you seen the fat-free turkey breast at Safeway?

Unfortunately for beef producers, they can't lace their deadly product with addictive nicotine.

And when mad cow disease is confirmed in on this continent, all bets are off.

The nature of agriculture is changing rapidly. Farmers are going to have to farm the land more than they have farmed the government. The new farm bill puts farmers on a seven-year phase-out of government subsides (a better deal than children on welfare are getting with welfare "reform"). While the boom hasn't been lowered yet on public land welfare ranching, it will as Congress searches to eliminate more programs to balance the budget, regardless of which party occupies the White House and/or controls Congress.

The federal public lands produce only 2% of the nation's beef supply; more is produced in Florida than on all western federal lands. If it is acres/cow rather than cows/acre, it's a loser. Even a subsidized federal grazing fee of less than $2/month/animal (it costs me more to feed my cat) can't save a marginal operation. Such could do better putting their money in a passbook savings account.

Government policy toward public land livestock grazing is changing. A new draft plan by 170 scientists, to guide management of 75 million federal acres in the Upper Columbia Basin in seven states (and the Oregon portions of the Klamath and Great basins), acknowledges the ecological destruction livestock cause. Grazing reductions are likely. The alternatives vary, but all will cost ranchers more to graze public lands—not in the fee, but in herding and other costs.

The deciding factor may well be on how much the new plans cost the taxpayers. The least expensive alternative (greatest reductions in grazing and logging) would cost about half what is being spent today to mismanage these lands. The most expensive alternatives are those which seek to continue to prop up livestock grazing and would require that more tax dollars be spent.

The last I heard the government was still broke.

Livestock grazing on all federal lands in eastern Oregon and Washington account for 224 (yes, 224) jobs. For each job, 281 cattle are doing their damage annually to the federal public lands. The eastside has 3,667 livestock owner/operators/hands jobs; just 6% are dependent on federal forage.

The federal alternative designed to maintain grazing levels would have the taxpayers spending $52,000 annually for each job. Better to pay them not to work.

In this case, the less federal money spent, the greater the ecological—and fiscal—recovery.

As the feds reduces cattle numbers, it would be easier—and more just—for them to compensate the permit holders with the fair market value of the permits. Since the government spends $10 for every $1 it takes in on grazing, in a few years the savings can pay for the compensation. Then the money could go to debt payments or starving kids or heart bypasses.

The problem for public land grazing permittees is that while the courts have consistently recognized grazing as a privilege not a right, the market recognizes the value of the permits when ranches are transferred. Grazing reductions reduce the value of the property to which the permits are attached.

A permittee should be able to sell the grazing privilege to anyone: another rancher or to an environmental group who could elect to retire the permit in favor of salmon and elk or plenty and poetry.

Here's a solution to an environmental problem that requires less government regulation and let's the free-market work. Call it supply-side ecology.

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