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CSU’s Knight: ranchers provide connection between food and open space

Written by Christy Hemken
Salt Lake City, Utah – According to Colorado State University professor Rick Knight, the American view of ranching and open spaces in the West is shifting, but it’s not going to show up on the front page of the Washington Post or the New York Times.
    Knight was present to address the late-February meeting of the Public Lands Council in Salt Lake City, Utah, which brought together over 120 people from 40 agricultural and conservation organizations.
    “The reason why we’re here is that the majority of the public, for too long, have become disconnected from the fundamentals,” said Knight.
    He noted several quotes, some of which read, “Welfare ranching: the subsidized destruction of the American West,” a book title, and “Yes, we are destroying a way of life that goes back 100 years. But it’s a way of life that is one of the most destructive in our country…ranching is one of the most nihilistic lifestyles the planet has ever seen. It should end. Good riddance,” a quote published in the Washington Post.
    However, he said there is an emerging alternative vision, quoting a scientific journal as saying, “There is a consensus opinion among ecologists that says ‘exurban’ development alters ecological processes and biodiversity to a greater extent than either logging or ranching.”
    Scientists and ecologists use the term ‘keystone species’ for a species whose impact on a region far exceeds its total numbers. “That’s what ranchers are,” said Knight. “Because there are so few in the American West, but they have a disproportionate impact on the ecology, economics and cultural heritage of the West.”
    “From an economic point of view, we’re living in a time when we are losing a million acres of farm and ranch land each year and what is appearing is exurban development,” said Knight, explaining “exurban” as a suburb taken and dropped 20 miles outside city limits.
    “You can’t talk about the economics of ranching unless you also acknowledge the alternative economies of alternative land use,” said Knight. “It’s so interesting that, at a time when the red ink in the world’s greatest economy is fully capable of swamping the ship, ranching is fiscally conservative.”
    He gave Wyoming as an example, where, for every dollar paid in property tax on farm and ranch lands, the counties and school districts must generate 69 cents of services. The alternative, ranchettes, “puts an onerous financial burden on county governments and school districts to the tune of $2.40 for every dollar coming off property taxes,” said Knight, noting that as an example of deficit spending on a local level. “Ranching and farming are in the black.”
    He said food production is a sustainable economy, although not necessarily lucrative. “Ranching as a process and an economy basically dances on either side of that profit/loss margin,” said Knight. “It’s right there in the economic margin, and if you want the definition of a sustainable economy, don’t look under ‘lucrative’ in the dictionary. Ranching and farming have profitable years and years of loss, and that’s what a sustainable economy is.”
    He said that, because grass grows on an annual basis, ranching is one of the few land uses in the American West that can be done year after year. “We’ve been ranching parts of the West for over 400 years,” he said.
    Regarding grazing lands subsidies, Knight said they aren’t a bad word. “Subsidies are simply a legitimate use of taxpayer dollars,” he said, noting that recreation is the most subsidized use of public lands in the West, followed by energy.
    “What our American public doesn’t understand is that the Forest Service and BLM grazing leases support approximately 30,000 Western families who own an estimated 108 million acres of private ranch lands that are kept open and out of development,” said Knight. “Those are usually ranch operations that might not be economically viable if the public land grazing leases weren’t there. It’s important to point out the positive sides of what the public gets in that public/private bargain.”
    According to Knight, the ecology of ranching comes into play when considering that ranching minimizes fragmentation and keeps the West open. “In the alternative land use, homes perforate the landscape, which is dissected by roads,” he noted, adding that gives the same “natural heritage” of a Fort Collins, Colo. suburb. “Those areas support the same biodiversity – robins, magpies, garter snakes, skunks and raccoons – instead of mountain lions, bears and big game.”
    In a study of the Southern Rocky Mountain Ecoregion – which includes southern Wyoming, Colorado and northern New Mexico – it was found private ranchlands maintain 21 percent of the lands with an immediate connection to federal lands through grazing leases. Of the private lands surrounding public lands, 43 percent within a kilometer of federal land boundaries belonged to those ranching families with grazing permits.
    “Those private ranchlands that are kept out of exurban development – that are being fiscally responsible in supporting their counties and school districts – also provide incredible public benefit by increasing public lands because they buffer from the harmful ecological effects once the lands are subdivided,” said Knight.
    Knight said cultures matter more as more Americans are aware of respect for cultures different from their own. “It’s ironic that we do show this respect for a much older culture, even than ranching, of the first Americans. We show this respect and wish to acknowledge the importance of those cultures, while at the same time we seem to try to sweep up the second oldest culture,” he said.
    Knight quoted author Wendell Berry as saying, “As important a reason as any to support ranching, farming, irrigating and logging is that our society will need them as teachers, mentors and critics in the years to come.”
    “What he meant is that the production of food is fundamental,” said Knight. “Food is one of the basics.”
    He said another aspect of the American West is that ranchers are clearly playing a leadership role as the country moves forward. “Ranchers are now playing the leadership role in a West that works. They’re the groups hard at work building healthy human and natural communities in regions of the West.”
    He said ranching is the natural connection between food and open space, and the public movement is beginning to recognize that, partly through the local food movement. “It’s the fastest growing segment of the food business, and some studies say it’s the only growing part,” said Knight.
    In 2004 there was a single quarter where the U.S. was a net importer of food. “That was the first in American history,” said Knight, noting that food independence is, in part, an issue of homeland security. “Food is still a fundamental importance and we can no longer take it for granted.”
    “Ranchers produce ex-actly what the public wants – food and open space,” concluded Knight. “They’re the only thing I can think of that’s the living embodiment of the natural connection between the two. This is what our message should be about.”
    Christy Hemken is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..