The Western Range is the vast tract of dry grasslands and deserts stretching from Western Nebraska, Kansas and Texas to the Sierra Nevada. It has been used extensively as a grazing ground for the Western livestock industry since the end of the Civil War. In the 1870s, cattle drives were started in Texas, and their huge success caused an exponential growth in the number of cattle reared there. Sheep were also introduced during this period, although they were claimed to destroy the range further due to their feeding habits that cropped fragile grass too close for re-growth.
Competition for forage, droughts, blizzards and homesteading aggravated the scarcity of grazing lands and fueled hostility and wars between cattle and sheep ranchers, ranchers and homesteaders, those who fenced and those who cut fences. The political sentiment, which was started by explorer Major John Wesley Powell and seconded by President Theodore Roosevelt, advocated for federal control of public pastures. In 1930, The Taylor Grazing Act was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt, to promote better use of public lands, stop the degradation of the lands and administrate over them. The lands were devoted to the livestock industry, and it granted the Secretary of the Interior mandate to divide up the land into grazing districts and determine the amount of grazing permitted in each district.
The Secretary of Interior appointed local ranchers to sit in district advisory boards mandated to act on his behalf. Subsequently, they gave preference to stock owners who owned base property, second preference to owners of the nearby base property and lastly, stock owners without base property. This created an effective caste system of herders based on resource superiority. The regulations put in place from 1938 onwards reserved the power to modify, refuse to renew or cancel permits to the Department.
The Department could also reduce the Animal Unit Months (AUM) allocations depending on the districts’ grazing capacity. Despite attempts to tax grazing and reduce herd numbers in the 1960s, the range remained in an unsatisfactory condition. In 1976, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act was passed in Congress. It gave powers to the Interior Department to develop land use plans based on multiple land concepts to avoid the depleting effects of livestock alone (US Department of the Interior, n.d).
In 1995, the Interior Department amended the Federal Lands Grazing Regulations and started an effort to accelerate the restoration of the rangeland and prevent further damage to the infrastructure and obtain fair and reasonable compensation to the public for livestock grazed on their land. The Public Land Council representing the ranchers brought the lawsuit against the Secretary and the Government in Federal District Court challenging the new regulations. The court found 4 of the 10 regulations unlawful, but the Court of Appeal reversed the District Courts decision and upheld three of the four. Therefore, the US federal government retained control over the public grazing lands with the sole discretion to commission infrastructural and other physical development (Renee, 1949).
Pros and Cons of the Decision
This court decision upheld the federal government’s control of public lands in the western ranges on the basis of protecting the ecology of the region that has been continually depleted by years of overgrazing. This decision is in the good interest of the public as opposed to a few individuals who had proven to be incapable of self-regulating to avoid environmental degradation. To also put the land into other uses to create balance, the government had to take charge of the federally owned land and, in the best interests of the public, assign the most suitable activities for them aside from ranching. The inculcation of other economic activities would open up the region to better, more wholesome development (Public Land Council, n.d).
On the other hand, the decision erred in a few ways; taking away control of land they had been using for centuries and denying them control over it, were counter-productive moves. Not being in charge of their own farms would obviously make the ranchers even less inclined to improve the lands (Laura, 2016). The federal government’s decision to approve any infrastructural installations in the farms was also in bad taste to the free will of the business. The leasehold system of land administration is another deterrent to rancher’s motivation to develop their land and take care of it. The fact that one is to hold ranching rights to a piece of land for ten years or so and the renewal of his lease is in the hands of someone other than him is also very demoralizing. The decision to control even trivial affairs of a ranch such as spraying insecticides further alienated ranchers from their ranches, making them less inclined to improve them.
To retain the status quo and make the ranchers a part of the solution rather than the problem, the government should have considered less control of activities on the lands. As the greatest beneficiaries of the ranching system, ranchers would see it in their best interests to support the government in the environmental recovery plans of the Western Ranges. Like any other citizens of the country, the ranchers should also be given the opportunity to purchase their ranches from the government to conduct economic activities they deem most profitable. To protect the integrity of the environment, the government would only need to regulate environmental effects of whatever activities farmers decided to engage in. Another viable solution would be the passing of jurisdiction of the lands to their respective state governments. This would ensure that the legislation passed over them are done by people who understand the dynamics of the situation on the ground. This would ensure that regulations passed would be more suited to the ranchers and their activities.
The case of Public Land Council et al. v Babbitt et al. was the highlight of a century-long power struggle between the Rangers and the government. The government was forced to intervene to stop further deterioration of the naturally weak desert-like environment of the ranges. The activities of the Rangers were injurious to the environment. Therefore, the federal government was forced to intervene. The court’s decision further advanced the government’s position as the enforcer of land rights, and also enhanced its role to protect public lands on behalf of the public. The loss of control by the ranchers marked the beginning of the end of ranching as the sole economic activity of the ranges.
- Laura J. S. (2016). Ranch Diaries: The Anti-ranching, Misinformed Discourse around Malheur. High Country News. Retrieved from www.hcn.org/articles
- Public Land Council (n.d.). Argument for Public Lands Grazing: Economic, Environment and Principles. Retrieved from www.publiclandscouncil.org
- Renne, R. R. (1949). Conservation of the Western Range. Journal of Range Management, 2.3, 133-141. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org
- US Department of the Interior (n.d.). History of Public Land Grazing. Bureau of Land Management. Retrieved from www.blm.gov/ut