The room was packed, wall-to-wall cowboy hats and New Mexico’s native tongue – the blend of Spanish and English I refer to as “Chinglés.” These folks are almost unanimously against the designation of new wilderness, part of why I attended this meeting of the Northern New Mexico Stockman’s Association. In hard to reach, high altitude locations, forage and water abound in most years, and thanks to generations of government-funded predator control, few threats exist. I wanted to learn more about why someone might take exception to that.
We watched a film, “Losing our Land,” about New Mexican ranchers’ struggles against Mexican wolves, profiteering environmentalists and the government. Though I knew it wouldn’t, that it couldn’t (the film was produced by Glen Beck after all), I wanted the story to turn over the next stone, to provide some context behind the challenges of rural living. A rancher was pictured crying. His tears and pain were palpable.
Ranchers fear that their way of life is as threatened as the numerous species – the meadow jumping mouse, prairie chicken, cutthroat trout – they have driven to the brink of nonexistence. Notwithstanding the irony in this, their desire for relief must be insuperable. If it’s not the greenies crawling up their asses, it’s the price of fuel and feed, interest rates, tuitions, government cutbacks, aging equipment and bodies, rain that refuses to fall, and wolves.
Fortunately, help is on the way. State Representative Yvette Herrell and Senator Ron Griggs intend to pass legislation enabling New Mexico to assume ownership of America’s public lands. By Herrell’s own admission, this would be a step towards privatizing those lands.
Herrell and Griggs believe the state will manage public land better than the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. It’s a bold claim, complete conjecture if one relies on substantiating evidence. Maybe the logic is that the state is too benign to commit the type of overreach characteristic of the feds, that the state treats cattlegrowers better than the scoundrels from back east with their below cost grazing fees.
Let’s look at those fees. Currently on public land, a rancher pays $1.35 per AUM (one month of public grass for a cow and calf pair). Compare that to what my family pays for just one night at a Forest Service campground. Sixteen dollars, the equivalent of one month’s foraging for 22 animals, or two pairs of cows through an entire grazing season.
Put in human terms, one night of camping on public land costs less than a nickel for a cow and her calf. All in. Unlike my family, cattle don’t gas up in the nearby town and buy fishing gear and licenses, beer and marshmallows. They essentially chupa the public udder for free.
Amazingly, to many at the stockman’s meeting, this is still a raw deal. In fairness, ranchers acting in good faith often encounter agency resistance when trying to access forage, improve efficiency, or reduce red tape. The smart approach might be to push for better agency funding while engaging more diligently in the planning process. Incremental progress is certainly less risky than betting the farm on a fantasy.
And what a fantasy it is. As Herrell and Griggs picture it, as it “manages” its land, the state won’t succumb to environmentalist crap. Cows once imprisoned will be freed unto a world of grassy lushness where they will wallow in cool creeks, jackhammer the banks, and gush torrents of green slurry unto the water. Wolves and elk, ever insatiable, will be destroyed as suits the cow. Roads, fences, and watering troughs will be built and maintained.
Forests will be thinned heavily, logs sold to a market that always needs them, and counties will be reimbursed their opportunity costs. In the unlikely event of wildfire, the state will deploy adequate resources to subdue it, along with the cheatgrass and knapweed that erupt in its wake. The state will also reimburse the rancher for impacts to stock from fires and other disasters. Verily, the rancher will thus prosper.
Meanwhile, back on earth, the public lands cowboy would be the first log on the fire of public lands transfer. The State of New Mexico is a perennial national leader in child poverty, inadequate education, and other metrics reflecting on its “management” skills. I’m incapable of imagining that ranchers would be immune to whatever lies at the root of all this, or why they don’t recognize they’re being played.
In these times when almost every other land use bests the economic output of ranching, will the state float the ranchers like the feds have since the Taylor Grazing Act? I’ve seen private land grazing fees as high as 11.50 per AUM, probably because that’s the true cost of grazing. I don’t think the average rancher could afford to pay anywhere close to that, or that the state would pick up a lot of slack.
Do we know which lands will be sold when the inevitable day arrives (Hint: choice parcels will have grass, nice views, streams, lakes of oil beneath, and it will probably be expensive)? Would the ranchers be able to buy? To be clear, I’m talking about the people who raise cattle for a living, not the tycoons who buy land and put cattle on it to duck taxes.
So yeah, the ranchers are screwed. The wolves are at the door sure enough, but it’s getting clearer every day that they walk on two legs.