Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
Upholding rural Americans' rights to grow food,
own property, and caretake our wildlife and natural resources.
(This paper was for my English 102 project. The
theme of the class is Environmental Issues and for
the project we had to pick an environmental issue
that we are interested in and write a 5-7 page
paper about it arguing for or against it. I chose
grazing rights because I have grown up on a ranch
my whole life so I already knew a little about
it. I also chose it because I go to school at the
University of Nevada Reno and everyone in my class
does not know much (or anything) about ranching
even though they live in a ranching state.)
Grazing Rights on Public Land
For decades ranchers across Nevada have been fighting the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and National Forest Service for grazing rights. One of the most famous stories concerning this nationwide issue is that of Wayne Hage. He is not alone in the battle against the BLM and National Forest Service; every rancher is in the same battle in some way, shape, or form. Since about 87% of Nevada’s land is federally controlled, ranchers have to get grazing permits from them every year. When grazing permits are not granted ranches are put out of business and that way of life is nearly impossible. This has been a heated subject for many decades now. There are many disagreements between government officials and ranchers but there is one thing I am sure they both agree on and it is the fact that ranches are rapidly disappearing. Unless America wants to lose its most famous icons and western heritage, the ranchers and government officials need to compromise with one another.
Cowboys, Indians, tumbleweeds and cows were the first thoughts that come to most people’s minds when thinking of the western United States. The picture is no longer so clear due to the battle of mistrust and misunderstanding between the ranchers and environmentalists. Until the last couple of decades cattle grazing on public lands in the West has not been an issue between the different segments of society. The two views are contradictory but there is room for compromise. The battle between these two views has rarely been friendly, and has often been fierce (Jones).
Imagine driving for over two hours on a lonely dirt road where the only sign of life is the handful of scattered cows grazing quietly under the vast Nevada sky swishing their tails back and forth to keep the flies off their backs. You notice that there are not many fences in the valley but when you do come across a few you notice they are weather worn and have been there for at least half a century. Out the corner of your eye you see a glimmer of something shiny that you think might be a window to a house. You shake the notion; you are over fifty miles from the closest town. Who could possibly live all the way out here? After you continue to drive for another ten miles you notice a small ranch nestled against the mountains. A jolt of excitement runs through your body but quickly vanishes when you doubt anybody lives there until you see a truck with a trailer load of horses heading to the house, leaving a trail of dust in its path. Relieved that there is civilization way out here you pull up to the ranch to ask for directions to a nearby campsite. After chatting for a while, you learn that the guy who lives there is Wayne Hage and for a guy who lives over fifty miles from town, he has had to deal with a lot.
After having a nice supper and swapping stories, you are amazed to find out that Hage bought the Pine Creek Ranch in June of 1978, and only two months after the purchase he started getting harassed by the Forest Service. The Forest Service had dreams of starting a park or wilderness area there but after he would not sell the ranch to them. The fight was on.
Over the next decade the Forest Service made it increasingly harder for him to run a livestock operation, eventually running him out of business. The Forest Service fenced off his springs, took away grazing allotments for five years, and confiscated all of his cattle and then made him pay $39,000 for the cattle and $40,000 for the cost of impoundment, just to name a few. They did those things “to increase the cost of operation so much for Pine Creek Ranch, that Hage would eventually be frozen out and they would get the ranch by default” (Johnson). One could say the Forest Service won because Hage’s income dropped from $400,000 a year to only $6,900 a year, making it nearly impossible to run a ranch, let alone make a living.
“On September 26, 1991, Hage filed his ‘takings claim’ against the Forest Service in the U.S. Court of Claims. The suit alleged that the United States had taken Hage’s livestock, grazing rights, and stock water rights on rangelands” (Alden). There were three phases to the case and a little over ten years later on January 29, 2002, a final decision was made on phase one; the ruling went in favor of Hage. The trial date for the second phase was May 3 – May 21, 2004. The court trials still continue to this day.
The federal government owns approximately one-third of the land in the U.S. and over half of that land is located in the western states. Of Nevada’s 110,540 square miles of land, 87% is federally owned--more than any other western state. The land is divided into six grazing districts, which are: Elko, Winnemucca, Carson City, Ely, Las Vegas, and Battle Mountain. Since almost all the ranches use federal land, ranchers must get grazing permits from the government. “A grazing permit is an official written permission to graze a specific number, kind and class of livestock for a specified period on defined federal rangeland, and must authorize all livestock grazing on national forest system lands. Permits are issued for ten years or less” (Rangelands). To qualify for a grazing permit on public land one must “own or control private property that has been recognized as base property. This typically happens when an existing base property is sold or leased to a new individual. After buying or leasing base property, the new owner applies to the BLM for the grazing permit attached to the property” (U.S Department of the Interior).
When grazing permits are denied to ranchers for periods of time, it puts them out of a job and a way of life. Ranchers understand when government agencies give appropriate reasons; however, when the government takes away grazing permits because they want to have control over the land, ranchers get angry and fight back, just like Wayne Hage did.
It is understandable that the land needs time to recover from a fire but when the government puts a restraint on the land for more than two years, it affects a rancher. When a rancher cannot use the land for that long he must find some place else to run the cattle. That requires finding a ranch that will take care of the herd, which includes keeping an eye on the cows, moving them to new grazing allotments when necessary, and doctoring them when sick, etc. It is also a huge financial problem. A rancher must be able to afford the trucking fees, the fee of running the cattle on the ranch, animal unit monthly (AUM) fees, and brand inspection fees if traveling out of state. One haul truck can carry forty-five cows or thirty cow-calf pairs and it costs roughly $3.50 a mile. It costs anywhere from $15-$20 a head to run a cow on a ranch plus an additional $1.75 per AUM that you have to pay the BLM. When transporting cattle out of state, ranchers also have to pay a brand inspection fee, which usually runs about $1 a head. For a rancher, an average yearly net income is about $15,603. This fluctuates from year to year depending on feed prices, price of cattle, weather, etc. Ranchers who cannot afford these fees take out loans.
When you move cattle to a new ranch it takes a couple of years for the cattle to get used to the land. Within those first few years more cattle get sick and fewer cows become pregnant.
Many environmentalists and other people think that livestock grazing destroys native grasses, riparian areas, and creek beds, and reduces the number of wildlife. Those effects do occur but only when the land is overgrazed and is not managed properly. The most common cause of overgrazing is too much livestock on a given area of land. To prevent overgrazing, ranchers and government officials oversee the land.
On a ranch there are designated spring, summer, fall, and in some cases winter ranges on which the cattle run throughout the year. When cows are shipped into the ranch in the spring, they usually reside in allotments located close to the ranch. When summer rolls around the cows are pushed up into the mountains where there is new feed and plenty of water. In the fall when the weather cools, the cows start to descend the mountain on their own. The rest are gathered and put in the same allotments as they were in the spring. On most ranches calves are shipped off to sale, cows and bulls are shipped off to a winter range on another ranch that has a warmer climate, and heifers remain on the ranch in feedlots to be fed and taken care of when it is time to calve.
Every few weeks ranchers relocate the cows within each allotment to prevent overgrazing and damage to the land. So when it is time for the cows to come off of the mountain there is plenty of feed for them and the same allotment that was used in the spring can be used again in the fall.
Having been born and raised on a cattle ranch, I have experienced many hardships that do and do not deal with the government. I have met and talked with people that think today all cattle are raised in huge feedlots where the cattle’s “waste is untreated and unsanitary. It bubbles with chemicals and disease bearing organisms” (Boyan). While there are huge feedlots throughout the United States, many cattle are raised on family owned and operated ranches. When cattle are properly run on open land, “the positive impacts of progressive livestock management consistently outweigh the negative impacts that we occasionally incur” (Gowan).
Under natural conditions, grazers are nature’s gardeners. The cattle’s hooves create seed-to-soil contact and break the soil crusts, which help dormant seeds germinate. By eating stale growth they keep forage plants at peak production and their guts act like living composts piles, turning vegetation into high-quality fertilizer (Keppel).
On the opposing side, people think cattle trample the land, compacting the soil so when it rains the water runs off, takes away the topsoil, forms deep gullies, and damages creek beds (Boyan). It is believed that cattle dump large amounts of bacteria into the water, harming the fish. To fix these problems, many people are fighting to have cattle removed from federal and public lands.
If livestock is removed from the public lands, America will not only erase a large portion of its history, it will also destroy the way of life for thousands of American families. The ranches that were once located on millions of wide-open acres will be turned into bustling dirty cities where cows are replaced by cars and trees are replaced by skyscrapers. The sky that was once blue and the stars that were once able to shine will be infected by a serious case of pollution and smog. When people hear the word “America,” they will no longer think of rolling green hills, the big red barn, the green John Deer tractor, and cows grazing nonchalantly under the clear blue sky. Instead, they will think of industries, people rushing around in their suits and ties talking on their cell phones, and an endless sea of traffic.
There are many solutions that can be imposed on this issue but all take cooperation from both sides. I believe the easiest solution would be for the government officials to grant grazing permits to the ranchers every year. If the ranchers do not follow the guidelines on the permits (i.e. overgrazing, too many cattle in a certain allotment, allotments being grazed over the given time period, etc.) then the government officials have the right to fine the ranchers and/or temporarily revoke grazing rights. Unless the government wants to put ranchers out of business and raise all cattle in huge feedlots where more ecological damage is done, then the government officials need to realize the benefits that cattle have on the land when managed properly and ranchers need to obey the guidelines.
According to Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, “The sort of hard-working ranchers long idealized in cowboy myths are the ones most likely to go broke today” (Schlosser 136). Until these hard-working ranchers receive some public attention, they will truly become an endangered species. If you do not want to lose those American icons, the traditional western roots, and this sacred lifestyle, ranchers and government officials need to compromise with one another. The battle has been long and difficult but I believe we can work together to preserve the land and lifestyle we all love.
Alden, Diane. “Wayne Hage’s War: How the Monitor Valley Adjudication Came To Be.” Nevada Journal < http://nj.npri.org/nj98/04/hage.htm>
Boyan, Steve. “How Our Food Choices Can Help Save the Environment.” Earth Save. <http://www.earthsave.org/environment/foodchoices.htm>
Gowan, Chance. “Flying In The Face Of Truth.” Range Magazine. Fall 2006. 64-65.
Johnson, Scott. “Hage vs. U.S.” Ag Life NW 15 Nov. 2004
Jones, Brian. Cattle Grazing On Public Lands. 20 June 2003
Keppel, Wilma. “How Can Grazing Heal Land?” Managing Wholes: Creating a Future That Works. 15 Jan. 2002. < http://www.managingwholes.com/grazing-heals-land.htm>
Rangelands West. 6 April 2004. <http://rangelandswest.org/index.html>
Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation. New York: Harper Perennial, 2002.
U.S Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management. Nevada Bureau of Land Management. Rangeland Management. <http://www.nv.blm.gov/rangelands/range.htm>
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