Letter: Not all ranchers are responsible

While usually a big fan of Tony Vagneur, I disagree with some of the fundamentals of his latest column (“More to rancher saga than meets the eye,” Commentary, The Aspen Times, Jan. 9). While Tony and his family may be ethical, moral, conservation-oriented ranchers and stewards of the land, the same cannot be said of all or even most ranchers, as his column implies.

Tony should visit Cold Spring Mountain in the northwest corner of Colorado. The Bureau of Land Management has been incredibly lax in enforcing sustainable-grazing policies with the rights-holders there. When camping there 20 years ago, I was literally unable to find a tent-sized spot not covered with cow flops. The vegetation was nothing but thistles and chewed-off shrubs. In a recent visit, nothing had changed. That land belongs to thee and me, not to that rancher to abuse.

The federal government leases public land at a rate that is abysmally low. It is nothing more than a massive subsidy to cattle ranchers. The feds charged (in 2015) $1.69 per animal unit per month. In Colorado, the fees for grazing on private lands averaged $17.50 per animal unit per month, a difference of more than 1,000 percent! Appropriations for the BLM and U.S. Forest Service grazing programs have exceeded grazing receipts by at least $120 million annually since 2002. Had the feds charged the average private-forage market rate for nonirrigated lands in the Western states, grazing receipts would have been, on average, $261 million, greatly exceeding annual appropriations and relieving taxpayers of the burden of supporting an entire industry.

The backstory of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge takeover is more than just the Hammonds’ bust and jail sentences. In the 19th century, what is now the Malheur Wildlife Refuge was once part of cattle baron Peter French’s empire. In 1908, Teddy Roosevelt designated Malheur Lake a wildlife refuge. Congress denied any funding for management, so by the 1930s, overgrazing and grain agriculture had rendered the area a dust bowl. In 1934, the feds bought French’s former empire, ensuring that the refuge would at least have water. Grazing permits were issued like hotcakes.

By 1968, the area was once again becoming a dust bowl, and the new manager had to drastically cut back grazing permits. This is the start of the modern conflict. The local ranchers perceived the loss of those permits as heavy-handed management by the federal government. The reality is that not once but every time the government entrusted private ranchers with managing that land in a sustainable way, the ranchers were not up to the task.

As Tony can vouch, cattle ranching is a precarious business. Weather, drought, a harsh winter or disease can wipe you out in one nasty year. In a true free market, beef value and prices would reflect that.

Too many modern ranchers still imagine themselves as the rugged individualists of their romantic past. In reality, they have become heavily subsidized, grazing their herds on public lands for fees that are dramatically lower than those on private lands. While I like beef as much as the next guy, I’d rather pay for that commodity at its real price.

Bob Shettel