Issue 2, Spring 2003

Out of the Blue...

A Quiet Struggle

Wilderness activists often struggle with the relationship between wilderness and ranching. I recently had an opportunity to provide my viewpoint on this issue to our AWC staff.

Watching Saturday morning TV in Connecticut, I was enamored with Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Pat Brady, Trigger, Bullet, and Nellybelle the Jeep. Perhaps that is why I live on the Blue River today. I have lived and worked among public land ranchers for the past 26 years. I can relate to their point of view, and I believe that most of them lead a life exemplified by hard work and well-earned self-respect. As we see their livelihoods reduced by ever-changing social desires and realizations, I believe that environmentalists, agencies, and the media must consider their history and search for solutions that will maintain their livelihood.

Cow on Mount Tipton. Photo by Jay Krienitz. I feel secure with my stance regarding the impact of wilder-ness on the ranching community. In fact, it is perhaps the only arena in which environ-mental activism does not directly attack the legitimacy of ranching. All I can do is to be honest with ranchers regarding the effects of wilderness designation. On the one hand, the 1964 Wilderness Act states that Wilderness in and of itself cannot be used as a reason to reduce or eliminate livestock from a designated area. On the other hand, Wilderness designation can affect ranching operations by restricting motorized access and the use of mechanized equipment on a routine basis.

As we develop our wilderness proposals, we have a responsibility to address ranchers' concerns regarding their access requirements, but not their random wants. For instance, if a rancher requires frequent motorized access to specific locations, and the public currently enjoys such access to the same area, then we would consider a permanent cherry stem excluding that access route from wilderness restrictions.

In another typical scenario, if a rancher only requires occasional motorized access to maintain a specific range facility and the primitive route does not receive frequent public use, then AWC would generally propose a wilderness boundary that would encompass that route. The rancher's requirement for motorized access would be determined on a case by case basis. If such access is determined to be the minimum requirement for maintaining legitimate facilities, then it could be authorized through a special planning process. In this case, if grazing was ever to be retired within that allotment then that specific access would no longer be needed and would also be permanently retired.

Cow vertebrae. Photo by Jay Krienitz.The future of public land ranching in the Southwest appears very bleak, not because of wilderness restrictions, but because we are quickly moving toward an urbanized society with acute pressures on our public lands.

Public lands are expected to provide diverse conservation benefits and there is a growing demand for all forms of public recreation. Also consider that public land ranching provides less and less to local and national economies each year and that it tends to benefit few while it adversely affects many. The handwriting is on the wall and it isnít just an environmental message.

As wilderness activists, we know the ground rules established by the Wilderness Act. However, we do not and cannot control any other environmental groups or the societal pressures that will undoubtedly impact the future of public land ranching. I believe we should recognize the financial investment ranchers have in their public land grazing allotments and help to develop economic incentives that will encourage the graceful retirement of sensitive wilderness allotments. For this reason, and after much discussion by our Board, the AWC has endorsed a proposal that would allow for the voluntary buyout and retirement of grazing allotments.

The conservation benefits of reduced or eliminated livestock on public land are unquestionable, but private lands associated with public land ranching must be considered differently. Short of land conservation easements, private lands are destined, over the long term, to be displaced by their highest economic value - which unfortunately comes in the form of development.

A rancher only needs to keep 40 acres as base property for their operation in order to maintain a federal land grazing permit. The remaining private lands can and will likely be developed. It would be ludicrous to believe that it is in our interest to protect the undeveloped nature of that 40 acre parcel (which actually can be highly developed with houses, barns, corrals, feedlots, etc) in exchange for allowing often-excessive grazing to occur on every square foot of approximately 100,000 acres of associated public lands. Also, consider the need to control predators within the 100,000 acres. I personally would prefer to see that final 40 acres developed and the 100,000 acre allotment devoted to conservation values.

Large private land ranching operations, however, are a different story. If we consider the open space potential, maintaining large-scale private land operations in an agricultural status is beneficial when compared to rampant development. Conservation easements must be negotiated and their owners fairly compensated. Otherwise, the economic realities for the dwindling ranching community will eventually favor development.

As wilderness activists, we respect the grazing provisions within the Wilderness Act, and we cannot over-extend the reach of the law. We must always tell ranchers the truth about wilderness and how it will or will not affect their current grazing operations. Finally, we must recognize that we do not control the conservation efforts of others, so we can make no promises. In this case, time is on our side.


Don Hoffman, the current Director of the AWC, is a retired Wilderness Program Manager with the U.S Forest Service. He spent a significant portion of his career managing and working in the Blue Range Primitive Area, one of the crown jewels of Arizona wilderness.