The article “Rancher Promotes ‘New Paradigm’ on the Rangeland” (May 10) deserves some perspective. While I acknowledge that rancher Glenn Elzinga is trying his best to improve his livestock grazing through intensive management of his cattle herd, there is no right way to do the wrong thing. And raising water-loving, slow-moving animals in the desert among wildlife that need that land more than his cows is doing the wrong thing.

Elzinga operates a private business on 46,000 acres of our public lands for his private profit. And even under the best management, his cattle are still degrading our property in multiple ways that Elzinga conveniently failed to mention. His cattle are consuming grass and forbs that would otherwise support native herbivores, from grasshoppers to sage grouse chicks to elk. His cows are compacting soils, reducing water infiltration and increasing desertification of an already arid landscape. His cows are trampling soil crusts that inhibit the establishment of cheatgrass. His cows are spreading weeds. His cows are polluting our waterways. His cows are socially displacing native wildlife like elk and pronghorn, forcing them to utilize less suitable habitat. His cows are consuming forage that would support those elk and other wildlife that in turn would support our predators like wolves and cougars. His cows are trampling seeps and wetlands that are critical habitat for frogs, snails and vital water sources for wildlife. And those are just the impacts on the public land.

Furthermore, Elzinga promotes the false dichotomy that if his cows were not out degrading our public lands, he and other ranchers would have no choice but to subdivide their lands. If ranching were such a good way to preclude subdivisions, there would be none anyplace in the West, since nearly all of them are on former Ag lands. Most of the Wood River Valley, as well as the cities and towns around the West, were ranches or farms at one time—and it sure didn’t preclude housing tracts. If allowing ranchers to degrade our public lands is a conservation strategy, it’s not a very effective one.

Keep in mind that ranchers don’t have to sell their property to subdividers either. They can opt to put their property into conservation easements. Plus subdivisions aren’t covering every mountain valley in the West because people want certain amenities. The reason the Pahsimeroi Valley is largely uninhabited is not that there are ranchers out there trashing our public lands preventing subdivisions; it is because few people who want to live there.

Most people want to have things like cafes, hospitals, theaters, breweries, food stores, schools, universities, ski runs and the rest nearby. Despite the high cost of real estate, people flock to the Wood River Valley to live where there are amenities. 

Oregon has statewide zoning that precludes subdivisions of agricultural and ranch lands outside of urban growth boundaries. If ranchers like Elzinga were genuinely concerned about subdivisions, they would be advocating land-use planning and zoning.  

Custer County is 95 percent public land. Removal of livestock from those millions of acres of public property would easily improve the ecological health far more than any losses that might occur if some private ranchland were subdivided.

In the end, even the best livestock management can’t compensate for trying to do the wrong thing in the wrong place.

George Wuerthner is an ecologist who worked for both the Challis National Forest and Boise District of the BLM.

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