The Best Wilderness Is Hidden
By ILCW Member Linda M. Hasselstrom
You won’t find the healthiest wild lands in the nation on recreation maps. These secret spots have no toilet paper or beer cans in the bushes; no crowds, no loud music, no admission fees.
No motels, camp sites, toilets, souvenirs or asphalt paths. No gas stations; no boat ramps; no trash cans.
The abundant wildlife never begs along the road but follows dusty paths marked by cloven hooves and padded paws.
The catch? The best wild areas are ranchers’ private pastures. Many would welcome interested visitors, but you can’t take your vacation there. So why should you care?
The fragile grassland of the Great Plains protects the nation’s food supply and replenishes our air, water and wildlife. More than 70 percent of our native prairie has been plowed, but little-known plants and animals still live on range lands.
Studies by various agencies show that working landscapes harbor more biodiversity and generate more of nature’s services– clean air, water, and wildlife– than settled landscapes or parks. Privately-owned wild ecosystems, closed to the public, remain dynamic and heterogeneous.
Critics of beef production usually refer, without saying so– and perhaps without understanding the difference– to beef raised or fattened in a feedlot. Grazing animals produce a smaller carbon footprint, and perennial grassland, savanna, and woodland sequesters more carbon than cornfields or annual forage.
Financially, we all benefit from ranching. Ranch owners pay more in taxes than they consume in services– the opposite of settled areas and subdivisions. Unlike most manufacturers, ranchers don’t set the price of their products by adding a profit to costs. The money they receive for their cattle depends on who’s bidding that day, a process often influenced by factors outside their control.
Various kinds of contamination can thrive in feedlots, but livestock that feeds mainly in grassy pasture– including beef, pork, sheep, elk, deer, antelope and other wild meat animals– are likely to be healthier because they are not concentrated in a confined area with their manure. Range cattle roam freely, rarely spending more than a day in one spot. When they must be branded to prevent theft or vaccinated against disease, they are herded only briefly into corrals. In winter, ranchers scatter supplementary feed on clean grass; cows don’t like to eat beside feces. Since they live outside in all weather, their wastes are scattered and broken down by elements and insects. Pastured cattle never stand knee-deep in manure. Buyers who cram them into a feedlot for fattening waste resources and make the cattle, and those who dine on them, less healthy.
To thrive, ranchers must sustain their grazing lands. Some ranchers lease public land so they can rotate grazing and allow pastures to rest. Logic, self-interest, and federal and state permitting procedures all dictate that they treat public land as well as their own. Many of these folks would go out of business without leases. When ranches adjoining public areas are sold, the land is often developed.
How much grassland is privately owned?
Few statistics are available. A 2002 USDA study identified 358 million acres of grassland pasture and range. The 2007 Ag census showed only 656,475 farms and ranches raising beef cattle. U.S. residents consume more imported food every year.
Meanwhile, wildlife in wilderness areas and national parks lives precariously because public lands are increasingly crowded. Private land allows that wildlife to breed and rest. Conservation scientist Gary Nabhan estimates that for one half of our endangered species of mammals, plants, and birds, 80% of the population is nurtured on private and tribal lands, not in national parks or wilderness areas.
How can we enhance wildlife habitat in ranching country? We might zone grazing lands so they can’t be invaded by housing or commercial developments.
How about incentive payments– like the “tax increment financing” given to businesses– for ranchers who shelter wildlife and protect open space?
In some states, ranchers pay lower property taxes, since ranchers regularly feed animals the rest of the population considers public property– elk, deer, wolves, coyotes, foxes and the like.
Grazing land allows us to produce our own meat safely on pastures where American beef has been raised for generations, without the threat of BSE (Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or “mad cow disease”).
All of us enjoy visiting wildlife populations in national parks. We’re willing, in most cases, to pay admittance fees and follow particular rules because the parks are maintained for the benefit of all of us.
Perhaps we should consider what we can do to protect another endangered species: the ranchers who shelter that wildlife in its normal habitat outside the park.
As I write, I’m watching 50 antelope grazing my pasture. They come by every few weeks as they rotate between my pasture and that of my neighbors, and none of us chase them away, despite the fact that they are eating a lot of grass our cattle could eat. They’re part of the landscape; the fastest animals in North America, their ancestors were here during the Pleistocene era. Like ranchers, they are survivors and we believe in sharing this grassland with them.
Linda M. Hasselstrom ranches and writes in western South Dakota. She’s been called a rancher/environmentalist as if this is a contradiction, but it’s not. (Learn more here)