Open­ing Re­marks

Am­mon Bundy may want to take a closer look at ranch eco­nomics

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - Contents - By Bill Don­ahue

Close your eyes for a mo­ment and imag­ine. Imag­ine that the 20-odd armed self-pro­claimed pa­tri­ots now oc­cu­py­ing the Mal­heur Na­tional Wildlife Refuge in south­east Ore­gon were more me­di­asavvy. Imag­ine that th­ese dis­grun­tled, 10-gal­lon-hat­ted des­per­a­does were able to top the blus­tery, con­vo­luted riffs they’ve thus far brought to ca­ble news and make a co­gent case for eco­nomic in­jus­tice on the Western range. What if they could evoke history with elo­quence and mar­shal pierc­ing sta­tis­tics as they rally for the release of two Ore­gon ranch­ers—Dwight and Steve Ham­mond, fa­ther and son—re­cently im­pris­oned for set­ting a fire that spread to pub­lic land? Could they make the case that if their de­mands were met, they’d ac­tu­ally im­prove the lives of hard­work­ing farm­ers, log­gers, and ranch­ers?

The Cit­i­zens for Con­sti­tu­tional Free­dom, as the pa­tri­ots are call­ing them­selves, have a leader: hulk­ing, bearded, 40-year-old Am­mon Bundy. And he’s said that his posse won’t leave un­til the Ham­monds are free and free­dom reigns. No more penal­ties for pesky in­frac­tions like ar­son, Bundy in­sists: “The peo­ple will need to be able to use the land and re­sources with­out fear as free men and women.” In the Cit­i­zens’ found­ing doc­u­ment, the “Call to Ac­tion!” which Bundy posted to Face­book on Dec. 30, he added, “The fed­eral gov­ern­ment has ad­versely stolen

the lands and re­sources from the peo­ple, de­stroyed thou­sands of jobs and the econ­omy of an en­tire county.” How has it done this? As Bundy sees it, by tak­ing pos­ses­sion of vast swaths of land.

The U.S. cur­rently owns 47 per­cent of the real es­tate in the West, but the Feds didn’t al­ways have such a lock. Back in the mid-19th cen­tury, the gov­ern­ment was happy to give turf to farm­ers and ranch­ers for free. We’re talk­ing bad land in big states like Idaho, Mon­tana, Ne­vada, Ore­gon, and Wy­oming: arid, tree­less, va­cant ex­panses of bar­ren soil barely specked with veg­e­ta­tion. Per Man­i­fest Des­tiny, if you wanted to graze cat­tle on its god­for­saken reaches, well, the grass was all yours. Dur­ing this al­legedly golden era in Amer­i­can history, rancher Abra­ham Bundy (18591946), Am­mon’s great-great-grand­fa­ther, came west from Illi­nois and then, with his five sons, laid claim to 4,000 acres of Ari­zona ranch land.

The set­tling of the West was the stuff of myth even then. The lone cow­boy, later to be­come the star of John Ford movies, was al­ready com­ing to life as an Amer­i­can icon. If there’s one thing that de­fines a cow­boy, it’s a con­tempt for rules—and that ex­tends to rule­mak­ers. Richard Ballinger, who be­came sec­re­tary of the in­te­rior in 1909, pro­claimed, “You chaps who are in fa­vor of this con­ser­va­tion pro­gram are all wrong. In my opin­ion, the proper course to take with re­gard to [pub­lic range­land] is to di­vide it up among the big cor­po­ra­tions and the peo­ple who know how to make money out of it.”

Ranch­ing reg­u­la­tion did not come along un­til 1934, when a con­gres­sional bill, first pro­posed by a con­ser­va­tive Colorado con­gress­man named Ed­ward Tay­lor, passed. Then, sud­denly there was a fed­eral Di­vi­sion of Graz­ing set up within the Depart­ment of the In­te­rior, in­tent on herd­ing the West’s ranch­ers and also on pro­tect­ing the land from the worst ef­fects of ranch­ing—com­pacted soil, for in­stance, the dec­i­ma­tion of for­age, and the flour­ish­ing of weeds in a chang­ing ecosys­tem. New ranch­ers were now re­quired to ap­ply for graz­ing land. They were also obliged to pay graz­ing fees—so much per cow, per month. Cer­tain tracts of land were marked off-lim­its for the ben­e­fit of wildlife—a tack that did not go over well and still doesn’t.

Ranch­ers’ ire has re­mained steady for decades—but so, cu­ri­ously, have the fees they pay to the Bureau of Land Man­age­ment, the fed­eral agency that to­day man­ages 155 mil­lion acres of graz­ing land, an area al­most as large as Texas. In 1983 a rancher’s monthly cost for graz­ing one cow and one calf was, per ar­cane BLM cri­te­ria, $1.40. To­day it’s $1.35. A 2015 study by a Tuc­son­based ad­vo­cacy group, the Cen­ter for Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­sity, found that if pub­lic-lands ranch­ers were leas­ing sim­i­lar pri­vate land at pre­vail­ing mar­ket rates, they’d be pay­ing nearly 15 times as much per cow. It ap­pears that the U.S. loses money sup­port­ing ranch­ers: A 2005 Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice re­port found that in 2004 agen­cies had spent $144 mil­lion on graz­ing pro­grams while only $21 mil­lion in graz­ing fees were col­lected.

More­over, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment spends tens of mil­lions each year sup­press­ing fires and killing off cow-hos­tile weeds like cheat­grass. Pub­lic-lands ranch­ers enjoy th­ese ser­vices gratis, but per­haps they don’t ap­pre­ci­ate them. Bundy and his Cit­i­zens are ask­ing the U.S. gov­ern­ment to sur­ren­der all fed­eral lands to state and lo­cal au­thor­i­ties, and seem un­fazed by the prospect that, if such a trans­fer hap­pened, they’d start pay­ing out of pocket for fire and weed man­age­ment.

As 2016 be­gins, 27,000 Amer­i­can live­stock pro­duc­ers hold fed­eral graz­ing per­mits. They con­sti­tute roughly 3 per­cent of all cat­tle­men na­tion­wide and are stan­dard bear­ers for a fad­ing oc­cu­pa­tion. The av­er­age age of a fed­eral lands graz­ing per­mit­tee is now about 60. “Peo­ple my age don’t want to get into it,” says Jess Peter­son, who’s 34 and the ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of the U.S. Cat­tle­men’s As­so­ci­a­tion. “Just to get started th­ese days you need at least half a mil­lion worth of ma­chin­ery. And range­land is so ex­pen­sive. Thirty years ago, if you wanted to buy, you were com­pet­ing against, you know, Joe who just fin­ished high school. Now own­ing a ranch is fash­ion­able, and you’re com­pet­ing against some guy from Wall Street.”

Am­mon Bundy seems to get this: He hasn’t fol­lowed his fore­bears into ranch­ing. In­stead, he’s the im­pre­sario be­hind a Phoenix com­pany, Valet Fleet Ser­vice, which re­pairs and main­tains semi-trucks.

Even if ranch­ing were a growth in­dus­try, it wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily cre­ate more jobs. Run­ning cat­tle in the Amer­i­can West has never been la­bor-in­ten­sive. Con­sider that in some par­tic­u­larly dry lo­cales, a sin­gle calf-and-cow duo needs to for­age through sev­eral hun­dred acres a month just to sur­vive—and they can nib­ble away with very lit­tle hu­man su­per­vi­sion. Ranch­ing is such a ba­sic en­ter­prise that in 2002 Univer­sity of Mon­tana econ­o­mist Thomas Power re­leased a con­tro­ver­sial study not­ing that in the 11 Western states where pub­lic-lands graz­ing oc­curs, it gen­er­ates only $1 of ev­ery $2,500 of in­come earned. In re­cent years, says Power, now an in­de­pen­dent eco­nomic con­sul­tant, ranch­ing’s role in the West’s econ­omy “has con­tin­ued to shrink. In­creas­ingly,” he says, “even ru­ral farm fam­i­lies can’t live off farming. They get the vast ma­jor­ity of their in­come from other jobs.”

If Amer­i­can ranch­ers have a le­git fi­nan­cial gripe, it’s not graz­ing fees or fed­eral reg­u­la­tions so much as prices— beef prices have been fall­ing since late last sum­mer. Other prob­lems: ris­ing feed prices, re­cent droughts in Cal­i­for­nia and Texas (no doubt partly spurred by cli­mate change), and im­ported meat. Even so, the cat­tle in­dus­try has en­joyed record prof­its, partly be­cause of over­seas de­mand, over the last two years; beef im­ports con­sti­tute only about 4 per­cent of what Amer­i­cans see on su­per­mar­ket shelves.

Har­ney County, the place that Bundy deems “de­stroyed,” is a Mas­sachusetts­sized hin­ter­land where, un­til they were jailed, the fire-set­ting Ham­monds lived and ran cat­tle a few miles from the wildlife refuge. Slightly more than 7,000 peo­ple re­side there, as op­posed to 100,000 cows. Roughly 400 ranches graze cat­tle on pub­lic lands that ac­count for 72 per­cent of the county’s acreage. The an­i­mals are, it seems, al­ways close at hand, so that, driv­ing, you wait for them to cross roads; you see al­most noth­ing else on the des­o­late moon­scape. Ac­cord­ing to Randy Ful­ton, the di­rec­tor of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment for the county, ranch­ing brought in $59 mil­lion in 2012— an in­flux fa­cil­i­tated by the BLM and its sub­si­diza­tion of graz­ing.

Bird­ing is also a big source of in­come for the county, de­liv­er­ing roughly $15 mil­lion a year, but now, with the oc­cu­pa­tion on, Ful­ton wor­ries that rev­enue re­lated to the sanc­tu­ary might dip. “Even if this con­flict is set­tled,” he says, “peo­ple might say, ‘That place is dan­ger­ous. We’re not go­ing there.’ And if it turns into a Waco where there’s fed­eral law en­force­ment and shoot­ing, oh my, those oc­cu­piers will say, ‘Let’s take the build­ings out. Let’s set fire to them.’ They could do con­sid­er­able dam­age, and that won’t help us at all.” <BW>

Free­lance writer Don­ahue, a 25-year res­i­dent of Ore­gon, now lives in New Hamp­shire.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.