I have a fondness for cows. I grew up on a family farm in rural Idaho, didn’t live in a city until I attended college and milking cows was my job when I was a kid. I also like sheep because my maternal grandfather kept a dozen as pasture mowers. But there was never any question that these domesticated animals, the result of thousands of years of artificial selection, belonged on the farm – that is, on private land.
In Idaho, as in Colorado, there are a small number of sheep and cattle ranchers who graze their animals on public lands; and on a regular basis, the U.S. Forest Service is faced with the complicated task of deciding whether to permit private-livestock grazing to continue. The question now before the San Juan National Forest is detailed in the agency’s recently released Weminuche Landscape Grazing Analysis. The analysis reports that 85 percent of the allotments under consideration fall within the Weminuche Wilderness, and it’s apparent to anyone who has hiked, fished or hunted the wilderness that grazing on these lands produces major ecological degradation.
The costs of grazing cattle and sheep on public lands today far outweigh the benefits. It’s long past time to accept this fact and end all grazing on public lands – and especially in the Weminuche.
Even today’s smaller numbers of cattle and sheep grazing the wilderness continue to cause substantial damage to riparian habitats and to native populations of fish, animals and plants, while seriously detracting from and frequently ruining the wilderness experience for visitors. For example, I live close to the Four Mile trailhead north of Pagosa Springs and frequently hunt and hike this valley with my family. This particular trail sees large numbers of day hikers who walk in and out to see the waterfalls, and many of these folks are first-time wilderness visitors. Cattle graze here until mid-September, and the hiking trails are littered with cow pies and swarms of attendant flies. Having to see, smell and do our best to avoid stepping in cow manure ruins the wilderness experience. If I wanted to hike through cow manure, I would have stayed on the farm. These particular cattle also spend large amounts of time along Four Mile Creek and damage the fish- and wildlife-essential riparian zone by trampling vegetation, destroying stream banks and polluting the water with their urine and massive quantities of feces. In contrast, elk and deer behave differently than cattle and do not herd up in large numbers and remain streamside during the day. Is it any surprise it’s no longer possible to drink from the open-water sources because of the reduction in water quality?
Times have changed. This is especially true for the sheep industry, which has been in economic freefall for some time now and contributes basically nothing to the U.S. economy. Meanwhile, the federal General Accounting Office reports the fees charged for grazing on federal lands do not approach the true costs associated with grazing.
It makes no sense whatsoever to support an industry that’s a net economic and ecological drain on our already stressed national forest system. The best and primary use of these lands today is for recreation, and these users want a wilderness experience – not one of domestic cows and sheep polluting water, meadows and forests, drawing flies and disrupting the native fauna and flora. When the recreational public decides to go elsewhere to find a wilderness experience, the financial cost to the communities surrounding the Weminuche are far greater than the negligible financial loss if grazing were ended.
The Forest Service has a difficult task in attempting to balance competing interests. When grazing on public lands first began and throughout most of its existence, managers didn’t worry about riparian damage, degraded water quality, disease transmission, the loss of native fauna and flora and visitor income to local towns. The results of this lack of oversight are readily apparent today in radically and permanently denuded areas, such as the HD Mountains between Bayfield and Pagosa. Today, we can measure all of these variables, and they tell us loud and clear the costs to the public interest for grazing private property on public property far outweigh the benefits accruing to a small number of herders and ranchers.
The main point that needs to be remembered is once wilderness is gone, it is gone, and there is no getting it back. Removing grazing from public lands is an essential step in the right direction, and long overdue.
John Kappelman is a professor of paleoanthropology at the University of Texas. He splits his time between Austin and Pagosa Springs and conducts field work in Ethiopia and Kenya. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.