Welfare Ranching

Sam Hurst, 1-29: Public lands ranchers hooked on welfare By Sam Hurst, Journal columnist There is a promontory on my ranch from which I can look five miles up the Cheyenne River, and eight miles up Big Corral Draw, deep into the Badlands. I am not the first person to sit on this narrow little perch and contemplate the majesty of nature. A few feet away, someone - a holy man?…a lonely wife?…members of a hunting party? - buried rocks neatly in the ground in the shape of a prairie turtle. I like the idea that I am not the first person to love this place. And I will not be the last. All the land before me, across the river, is public. Sprawling over the steep slopes of juniper and table top mesas and clay domes rubbed smooth by a thousand summer showers, the proposed Indian Creek wilderness is nearly 30,000 acres and less than an hour from Rapid City. Indian Creek is managed by the U.S. Forest Service, in my name, in your name, in the name of my mother in Los Angeles, and your grandchildren in Ohio. What a treasure. But Indian Creek is also a battlefield. It is torn between two opposing sets of values, one rooted in a bizarre combination of nostalgia and greed, and the other, not yet quite born, looking toward the future. So far, the past is winning. During the last century the public grasslands of the west, including Indian Creek, have been leased to a small group of welfare ranchers. For hard-working, fiscally conservative, Main Street Republicans, this unholy alliance with public lands ranchers is an upside down, scandalous betrayal of conservative ideals. Here's how the system works. Let's say I manage my ranch a little better than my neighbor. I work harder, get up earlier, pay a little more attention to the details. My wife works in town and we put aside a little capital to expand. Can I bid on a public lands lease? Can I offer the federal treasury a little bit more? No. I'm locked out. The last thing these tough-talking conservatives want is competition. So I am forced to lease private land. This year, my fellow ranchers and I can expect to pay $20-$25 for a month of grazing by a cow/calf pair. But at the sale barn next fall we compete against the public lands ranchers who pay the government less than $2 for a month of grazing by the same cow - 10 times less than what I must pay on the open market! Imagine it this way. You operate a business in town. You sell tires, or floor tile, or electronic gadgets. You compete against someone who sells exactly what you sell, the same exact product! But the government subsidizes his production costs. To make matters worse, the government makes you pay taxes, which it turns around and gives to the other guy in the form of subsidies. Public lands ranchers like to say that they "improve" the land, and besides, "We 'buy' our permits when we buy our ranches." But the Forest Service doesn't sell permits. And the only "improvement" made to Indian Creek in the five years I've been watching is a new fence built by one permit holder, with the help of a conservation group, to make it possible to graze buffalo in the wintertime. Public lands ranchers like to say they speak for the cattle industry, but they represent only a fraction of the ranching community: the welfare fraction. Some years ago the federal government undertook an exercise. What would happen, the Forest Service was asked, if it borrowed $200 million from the Treasury, and paid off the public lands ranchers for the appraised value of their permits? Just choke it down. Buy them out! Then put each permit up for public auction in five-year cycles. All ranchers would be free to bid on the grazing leases. The results of the study were stunning. The Forest Service would be able to pay back the loan and turn a profit almost immediately. In a few years there would be enough new revenue from the pasture leases to hire staff to work with ranchers to properly manage the public lands, make a real effort to eradicate weeds and control erosion, manage for wildlife diversity, enforce grazing rules, even make improvements to enhance tourism. Against the old, entrenched system a new voice is emerging. A coalition of ranchers, including some who hold permits in Indian Creek, together with hunters, environmentalists and tourism advocates, have proposed that Indian Creek be designated an official "wilderness area" to protect its wild character forever. Cattle and buffalo grazing would continue. It's required by the wilderness law. Besides, any ecologist will tell you that grazing is essential to maintain the integrity of the grasslands. Indian Creek could be the first grasslands wilderness in the nation. It would be good for the land, good for the South Dakota economy, and it is what the public wants. But the public lands ranchers will not give an inch. They crowded into the meeting of the Pennington County Commission last week and threatened that wilderness designation would, in some vague and hysterical way, destroy their "way of life." That's the way it is with people hooked on welfare. And it worked. The county commissioners bought it hook, line and sinker, and voted to oppose wilderness designation for Indian Creek…typical big government, welfare conservatives, one and all. Sam Hurst is a Rapid City filmmaker. Write to [email protected].