The only thing Americans love more than a burger is a cheap burger. How else could you explain the mind-blowing fact that McDonald’s sells 75 burgers every SECOND. Seriously, if you stop to think about that for a minute, McDonald’s would have sold 4,500 burgers just in that time alone.
Pause for appropriate reaction of amazement and/or disgust.
There is no question that there is a large demand for low-cost meat in this country, but what many people don’t realize is the enormous hidden cost to the environment that comes coupled with this convenience.
Producing this gigantic sum of burgers (hardly exclusive to McDonald’s) requires an equally enormous amount of livestock, and livestock take up a lot of space. For this reason, around 78 percent of cattle in the U.S. are raised in factory farms. But what of the other 22 percent? The rest are largely grazing cattle that are raised on public and private lands across the U.S.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, one-fourth of all privately held land in the country, equivalent to 613 million acres, is devoted to grazing cattle; an estimated 279 million acres of public lands across 11 western states has also been rented to graze cattle. In total, the federal government owns around 640 million acres of public land, meaning cattle grazing takes up a solid 42 percent of this protected space.
A number of federal agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, National Parks Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Defense and the Bureau of Reclamation rent out their lands to cattle ranchers. These lands are mostly limited to the western regions of the U.S. and encompass national parks, forests and protected rangelands.
While it might not seem like such a big deal that federal agencies are renting out their lands for livestock production, when you consider the economic cost to taxpayers and ecological damage that comes with grazing, the motivations behind the decision to do so become a little more than suspect.
This is What Happens to Local Ecosystems When Grazing Cattle are Added to the Mix
Bureau of Land Management/Flickr
Chances are you’ve probably never wandered into a national park and thought that the ecosystem could really use some cows. Introducing cattle to places where they are neither a native species, nor contribute to the ecosystem in any positive way causes significant ecological damage.
The Center for Biological Diversity asserts that livestock grazing has a higher ecological cost than any other form of western land use. Yes, you read that correctly, and the reason for that is the main difference between public lands and privately held grazing plots is that public lands are not “pasture land.” They are riparian areas where wooded forests sit adjacent to important natural watersheds or non-irrigated rangelands made up of shrubs, herbs and native grasses. These places are filled with native plant and animal species that have developed to live in tune with the local environment. In fact, around 70 to 75 percent of western species have adapted to thrive in riparian ranges.
When livestock are introduced to these regions, here’s essentially what happens:
The Land Dries Up
Cattle compact the soil with their hooves, hindering the ability of water to filter into the ground, causing already parched lands to suffer from erosion. They also break down riverbanks, drying up watersheds and deplete native vegetation. Around half of lands in the U.S. devoted to cattle are overgrazed and highly subject to erosion and other forms of degradation.
As the Center for Biological Diversity puts it, “after decades of livestock grazing, once-lush streams and riparian forests have been reduced to flat, dry wastelands; once-rich topsoil has been turned to dust, causing soil erosion, stream sedimentation and wholesale elimination of some aquatic habitats; overgrazing of fire-carrying grasses has starved some western forests of fire, making them overly dense and prone to unnaturally severe fires.”
The Native Species Die off
Additionally, we have seen the populations of animals, such as wolves and wild horses, drop drastically due to the threat they pose to grazing cattle; and around 14 percent of threatened or endangered animals and 33 percent of threatened or endangered plants are
impacted by the presence of cattle.
Surely, with this high cost to the environment, one would think there is a huge economic advantage to grazing cattle on public lands…
Paying to Degrade Public Lands
Bureau of Land Management/Flickr
The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Department of Agriculture’s U.S. Forest Services (USFS), are the two largest federal departments that permit cattle grazing on their lands. Public lands were delegated to these federal agencies, all the way back to the 1890s, to keep them safe from outright exploitation and degradation.
It is the responsibility of the BLM and USFS to decide how these spaces are used – economic and agriculture purposes are permitted – and to maintain the integrity of local ecosystems to the extent that they can. (As a note: Livestock grazing on public lands was a highly contentious when it was proposed in the early 1900s, John Muir was vehemently opposed to it.)
Around 21, 540 ranchers have been given permits by the BLM or USFS to turn these wild places into feeding grounds for their livestock. We know that there is little to no ecological benefit to allowing cattle to graze on public lands, so, in the words of Rod Tidwell, “show us the money!”
Well, turns out that renting out land to cattle farmers is not the most lucrative business either.
Cattle grazing is made entirely possible thanks to federal subsidies, made possible by YOU! (i.e. the American taxpayers). Federal-lands livestock grazing receives an average of $100 million annually in direct subsidy and indirect subsidies are estimated to be at least three times this, making the cost of renting public land extremely low.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity,”Private,unirrigated rangeland in the West rents out for an average of $11.90 [per cow and calf], while monthly grazing fees on federal lands are currently set at a paltry $1.35 per cow and calf.”
At a fraction of the cost of renting private lands, it only seems logical that the opportunistic cattle rancher would opt to graze their animals on public lands.
However, doing so essentially puts the BLM and USFS in a deficit. In the past year, both entities only made around $19 million dollars from land fees, but taxpayers shelled out $125 million to cover the subsidized cost of land.
The real kicker in all of this is the fact that protected lands are being degraded beyond repair, taxpayers are funding this destruction, and the actual product that results from all of this – i.e. meat – nary makes a dent in the domestic market.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, livestock grazed on western lands only make up about three percent of all forage-fed livestock. Effectively, if cattle grazing were to cease in the West, the net cost of meat would not be affected at all.
What Can We Do to Stop This Madness?
If renting public lands for cattle grazing operated on a three strike basis, this practice would have been done away with long ago. However, despite the fact that renting lands is losing money and completely destroying western ecosystems, it persists. As taxpaying citizens, it is time that we put an end to this ridiculous money pit, if not for the sake of our wallets, but for the sake of preserving America’s last remaining public lands.
These lands belong to us all and their protection is in all of our interest. To stop the U.S. government from funding their systematic destruction, check out the Center for Biological Diversity’s public lands campaign and sign this petition to revoke grazing permits.
Lead image source: Department of Agriculture/Flickr