Welfare Ranching The Subsidized Destruction of the American West

Edited by George Wuerthner and Mollie Matteson
Island Press 2002; Hardback: ISBN 1559639423; 346 pages; $75.00;
Paperback: ISBN 1559639431; 368 pages; $45.00

When picturing the American West, one conjures romantic images of wide-open ranges filled with wild horses, cows, and cowboys. However, upon closer examination you will see corporations and the very rich exploiting millions of acres of public land to the extreme detriment of the land, people, and wildlife that inhabit it.

Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West exposes this abuse through a broad range of essays detailing habitat destruction, species extinction, water pollution and depletion, and waste of taxpayer dollars. The mammoth book is filled with maps and photographs vividly depicting the stark contrast between public lands that have been overgrazed and those given a reprieve, or those that have never been grazed.

An estimated 307 million acres of federal, state, and local lands are leased for raising livestock through federal grazing permits. The 1934 Taylor Grazing Act created these permits to be "revocable, amendable, nonassignable ten-year licenses to graze on public lands" as a way to ensure the lands future viability and family ranching during the economic troubles of the Great Depression. Today, however, large corporations have consumed the Act's intended beneficiaries, the small family ranchers, much as they did the family farmers of the East. Those small ranchers, who remain in operation, struggle to survive, often forced to find additional jobs to supplement their income.

Welfare Ranching is filled with statistics clearly showing how a few people like Idaho potato billionaire J.R. Simplot (owner of one of the largest U.S. cattle operations) and the Hewlett and Packard Families, corporations such as MetLife, and Anheuser-Busch, and even the Mormon Church reap vast financial rewards at immense natural and public expense. Simplot's company alone controls 2 million acres of public grazing allotments.

Because federal permits are not retired, those no longer used by smaller operations are simply bought up by the larger operations. It is simple economics why corporations use public lands. Federal permittees pay only $1.35 per month to graze a single cow-calf pair on public lands while the average monthly cost of grazing per cow-calf pair on private lands is $11.10. In addition, subsidies for predator and pest control, drought and fire damage, further make the endeavor more profitable. In a one year period alone, welfare ranching cost taxpayers an estimated $72 million loss for Bureau of Land Management's Range Management Program (2001) and more than $52 million for Forest Service Program (2000).

Most ranching and cattle production in the U.S. exist on private lands while public lands contribute less than three percent of U.S. meat production. Only 1.9 percent of the 1.6 million cattle producers in the U.S. are ranching on all western public lands. Hopefully, this corporate abuse of a precious ecosystem and taxpayer dollars will end while the land and wildlife can still recover.

-By Christopher J. Heyde

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