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Grazing is not the Answer

Review by Keith Akers

Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West. Edited by George Wuerthner and Mollie Matteson. Washington, Covelo, and London: Island Press, 2002. 346 pages, paperback, approximately 11 3/4" by 13 1/2", $45.

There is a tendency among some environmentalists to regard grazing cattle as an alternative way of raising meat which is superior to factory farms. After all, cattle consume forage on grasslands that could not grow food for people anyway; and the cows live lives of comparative ease compared to their sisters and brothers crammed into factory stalls. And what else are we going to do with our Western lands, anyway?

Welfare Ranching is the definitive answer to this tendency. A political issue is an unlikely candidate for a coffee-table book; but this color-illustrated book is at the same time brilliantly organized, stunningly photographed, and comprehensively documented. It specifically addresses grazing on public lands, but there’s very little in Welfare Ranching that doesn’t also apply to all grazing in the West. After reading this, there is little room to escape the conclusion that grazing is an incredibly destructive form of agriculture; if anything, it would seem to be far worse even than factory farms. Cattle are not only on public lands, they are even in national forests — there are twice as many domestic livestock in the Yellowstone ecosystem as there are wild ungulates! It is wiping out the land; it is wiping out entire species; it is biological warfare against the earth. For mass destruction, it would make Saddam Hussein envious. And YOU are helping to pay for it with your taxes.

The real strength of Welfare Ranching lies in its ability to show what is wrong — and what is right — not just through words, but through pictures. It has lots of pictures, in fact opening it at random you will likely find a small body of text and a huge picture. Those of us who are not familiar with this subject probably would look at an area grazed by cattle and say to ourselves, "well, what’s wrong with this?" What the authors of this book have done, is to tell us how to look — and see — what is really going on.

I knew already that grazing affected riparian areas (areas near water in the arid or semi-arid West). Now I know what a riparian area looks like, and I know how cattle affect the stream banks, the vegetation, the water, and the wildlife; I know what "range improvements" look like. I know what a sage grouse looks like, and what a Pacific Tree Frog looks like, and what an ungrazed grassland looks like — and why we don’t see very many of any of these any more.

Almost as an afterthought, the editors have also presented not only lots of color pictures which show what the problems are, but thorough and up-to-date essays by what are really the top people in the field. I especially enjoyed Part IV, which details the specific environmental impacts of grazing on public lands. There are essays on exotic weeds, bears, prairie dogs, snails, frogs, bison, wolves — you name it. There are even essays on the underlying economic realities — briefly, that public lands grazing contributes almost nothing to the economy.

Welfare Ranching is neither the first nor the only book to discuss the issue of public lands grazing. I was first introduced to the subject when I read Sacred Cows at the Public Trough by Denzel and Nancy Ferguson, and then later found The Waste of the West by Lynn Jacobs. These are also excellent discussions of the subject of public lands grazing. But if there were only one book you could read on how the cattle culture really affects the West, Welfare Ranching is it. It is well worth the $45 cost. This book has made it impossible for an intelligent person, regardless of their dietary habits, to defend public lands ranching. Because of the attractiveness of the presentation of the issue, and the comprehensive nature of the coverage of the problems, Welfare Ranching is a "must read" for anyone concerned about the environmental problems of the West.

November 30, 2002