Just one glance at the map above explains why access to federal grazing lands in the American West is an enormously important issue.
The darkly shaded land area in the western part of the nation shows land owned by the federal government.
The stark division between the West and the rest of the nation also highlights why the western congressional delegation has a hard time successfully driving its points home. Both population and private land ownership are concentrated in the eastern two-thirds of the country.
Much of the public ownership in the West dates back to the western expansion of the United States in the 1800s.
When pioneers migrated west, they headed for the major water supplies and rich, arable lands of the Willamette, Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, among others. Few wanted to settle in the vast deserts of Nevada, Arizona and, yes, eastern Oregon. So much of that land has remained in public ownership.
Other land was protected through establishment of the U.S. Forest Service in 1906 as a direct result of concerns about grazing, which grew to a peak of more than 21,000 sheep and almost 4,400 cattle in 1922.
Dust Bowl Era drought and overgrazing problems led to the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934 and to establishment of federal grazing allotments.
But authorities manage federal land for a variety of purposes, not only the grazing, timber and mineral rights that are the focus of many private complaints on both sides of the argument, but for recreation and species protection as well.
Land management priorities have drunkenly lurched into the 21st century, pushed back and forth by the priorities of the administration in power at the time.
Trying to work within the system and operate a successful agricultural business at the same time has become a process so difficult that many cattle ranchers are getting off of federal lands and out of the business all together.
Some activists may prefer that outcome, but that’s not the best solution for this country, and neither are the contradictory and overly restrictive policies that are driving many farmers and ranchers out of business.
Maintaining our food supply infrastructure is a more critical issue today than it was even 20 years ago. We need good food supplies grown close to home to assure our food security — access to a continued healthy food supply despite whatever disruptions may emerge, whether disaster or political upheaval.
By that token, a healthy domestic food supply is also a national security issue. In a world increasingly marred by war and political upheaval, the guarantee of a stable world food market is no guarantee at all.
The piecemeal implementation and perpetual litigation of the Endangered Species Act plays a big role in the regulatory lockdown of the West.
We’ve come a long way from the “Silent Spring” era when DDT use was destroying the bald eagles. As a whole, land practices today do a much better job of protecting the land and the species that rely upon it. That isn’t taken into account by the 40-year-old species law.
It is long past time for a comprehensive rewrite of the Endangered Species Act that that allows for peer and public review of the science.
We have our own Northern spotted owl as an example of why that needs to happen. Locking down vast tracts of timberland for decades hasn’t helped the critter thrive and now we’ve taken to arbitrating its interspecies dispute with the barred owl.
Where cattle are concerned, even some conservationists recognize that they have a place on federal lands. But as that place continues to shrink, the threat to the western cattle industry becomes more and more dire.
We rely on these ranchers and what they produce. We need to make sure they have the resources they need to thrive.