Thursday, July 13, 2006

Helping grazing on public lands -- Does this keep the developer at bay?

   The Bureau of Land Management has issued new final regulations that would, in part, make it more difficult for local BLM managers to impose ecologically based restrictions on grazing on the public lands.  Environmentalists have long criticized such grazing, of course, arguing that the system provides a “welfare” subsidy for private ranchers to injure a public resource.  Cattle trample arid-land plants and pollute creeks, among other harms.

   Here are two comments.  First, the NPR story quoted pro-ranching advocates, including a BLM official, who justified helping ranchers because efforts to remove ranching would “inexorably” lead to housing development of the grazed lands.  What an extraordinary assertion!  This appears to be a rather lame attempt to curry some favor with some environmentally minded citizens –- but only those who don’t really understand the extent of the grazing issue.  As anyone familiar with BLM lands knows, these lands constitute nearly half of the arid U.S. West –- millions of acres of dry land and desert, only a tiny fraction of which are near the cites and towns in which there are current development pressures. 

   On the other side, those who call for cutting back grazing on the public lands ignore the fact that the policy of keeping within federal ownership much of the West inevitably leads to controversial issues of public management and less-than-optimal use by ranchers who, in effect, rent instead of own.  When former Interior Secretary James Watt suggested in the ‘80s selling off some of these lands, he was chastised by environmentalists.  But some judicious selling of some BLM lands to ranchers who then would have an incentive to steward their own land is an idea worth thinking about again.

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