When I wrote KeepingPrivate Idaho in the mid-90s, I focused on xenophobia. Idahoans then seemed bent on keeping non-natives out of the state.
Now, an issue in Nevada seems ripe for parody. The standoff over the Bundy cattle and years of unpaid grazing fees has all the elements of political theater. Bundy claims he’s a patriot while refusing to acknowledge the authority of the United States Government. Meanwhile, his supporters say they are willing to lay down their lives for a fuzzy principle, which boils down to “government bad.”
It does not seem to occur to the “patriots” that they are proposing anarchy.
Mostly unasked in the reporting is whether grazing should be taking place there at all. That’s a complicated subject. At one time, the answer probably should have been no. Had we known in the 19th century what we know now, the federal government would have been wise to prohibit it. Those who grazed cattle back then assumed the grass would always be there and their cattle would have little or no impact on the ecosystem—a word they would not recognize.
We’ve been grazing those public lands for about 150 years. The land has changed because of it, and usually not in a good way. Counterintuitively, removing cattle from public land would not necessarily improve it. Modern grazing, which includes critically timed movement of animals, is now one of the better tools in the management toolbox for public lands. Correctly done, cattle grazing can help beat back invasives, encourage native species, and assist in fire management.
Once you start messing with an ecosystem, you’re stuck with managing it forever. If we walked away from public lands now that they are over-run with invasive species, those species would quickly dominate. If you think sagebrush is boring, how do you think you’d like a desert ecology based on cheatgrass, tumbleweeds and fire?
The BLM, which moves slow as a snail to recognize innovation, is poorly equipped to manage grazing. Local managers are hamstrung by bureaucracy and lawsuits. Meanwhile ranchers, who are often well educated in range stewardship, experience deep frustration year after year when they advocate for innovation with little effect.
There’s a lot for ranchers to complain about. Claiming some imaginary birthright and refusing to pay reasonable grazing fees doesn’t help their cause. Most of them realize this and will keep themselves far away from this particular scuffle.