“I’m a former tree hugger who was opposed to everything, every timber sale, but now I see that the worst thing you can do is lose it all to development.” Anne Dahl, the director of the Swan Valley Ecosystem Center in Montana quoted in New York Times.
The above quote appeared in an article about how timber companies are increasingly selling off land for development, and how some former logging opponents now view logging companies as allies. We hear the same kinds of remarks from those supporting ranching in the West as well, many in response to previous posts on this column. For want of a better term, these views can collectively be termed the clearcuts vs. condos and/or the cows vs. condos debate.
The general idea is that no matter how bad you might think logging or grazing is for the land, subdivisions are worse. Increasingly this idea is used to silence criticism and/or even examination of the real environmental impacts associated with these industries.
Since most of the West’s private lands are devoted to ranching, I’m going to focus on the condos vs. cows debate, but much of what I say about ranching is equally as true about logging and/or farming as well, especially in other parts of the country where these industries dominate land use.
There are three things wrong with the underlying assumptions behind the “cows are better than condos” idea.
First, livestock proponents vastly underestimate the ecological costs of livestock production (or logging/farming). Growing cows in the West involves more than the mere cropping of grass.
Livestock production impacts include dewatering of rivers for irrigation, replacement of native plant communities with irrigated hay fields, and killing of native predators, pollution of water, transmission of disease to native wildlife, consumption of forage that would otherwise support native herbivores, trampling and compaction of soils, pollution of water sources, truncation of nutrient flows and so on. (I could list a similar litany of ecological problems associated with logging). Such a full accounting of livestock production costs greatly increases the negative impacts of livestock production on western landscapes and wildlife.
Just as a full accounting of sprawl’s impact should take in more than the physical footprint of the house site, and must include the added traffic on roads, the fossil fuel energy used for commuting, pollution of ground water from septic systems, loss of wildlife habitat, and so on, a similar full accounting of livestock production must include more than grazing effects.
Second, livestock proponents ignore the vast differences in the physical, geographical footprint between development and livestock production. Livestock production affects nearly all of the non-forested landscape in the West in one fashion or another, whereas sprawl and its impacts remain relatively concentrated.
Third, and perhaps most importantly to this debate, ranching and/or logging does not prevent subdivisions. Relying on ranching and/or logging to prevent sprawl and preserve biodiversity is ultimately a flawed land conservation strategy.
Rising Land Values
Part of the problem is that most people fail to consider the factors that drive sprawl and subdivision. If you don’t identify the source of the problem, you can’t correct it. The biggest predictor of sprawl is land prices, which in turn are driven by demand. Ironically the higher the land values, the more likely it is to be subdivided. If you live in a place with jobs, amenities, educational and outdoor recreation opportunities, demand drives the parceling up of land.
When land prices in a local real estate market are higher than the return on extraction profits, industries that depend on low land prices—and ranching, logging, and farming all do—often gradually disappear and/or migrate to places where demand for land is lower and prices reflect that lack of demand. This shift may take decades, but ultimately high land prices doom extractive industries.
Even farmland producing high value fruits and vegetables (in terms of dollar return per acre) ultimately succumb to this economic maxim. Many former agricultural lands growing high value crops such as the fruit orchards that once graced California’s Santa Clara Valley, now known as Silicon Valley, or the suburbs that now cover the veggie farms of the “Garden State” of New Jersey are extreme examples of these trends. If high value Ag lands can’t prevent sprawl, then what chance does a low value activity like livestock production have to thwart subdivisions?
A widget made more cheaply in Indiana than in Montana can be moved to Montana and sold there. People tend to buy the least expensive item. However, unlike other things we buy which can be transported, land is “grounded.” The old quip of real estate agents about the three most important things in real estate price being “location, location, location” accurately describes the driving factor in subdivisions. Land prices reflect location which in turn is affected by amenities and quality of life factors.
There are millions of acres of private land for sale right now in North Dakota. It’s cheap. It’s available. So why isn’t North Dakota being overrun by developers? The reason is that almost no one wants to live in North Dakota, and you can’t transport that cheap land to the mountain valleys of Montana or Colorado.
The second important factor to consider is that the majority of development in the West occurs in a relatively small geographical footprint within commuting distance of urban centers and resort areas, where jobs, educational opportunities and amenities are in abundance.
Though sprawl is consuming more and more land in the U.S., particularly in the West, animal agriculture (ranching) affects many times more of the American landscape. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, less than 5% of the total U.S. land area is developed. This includes all the highways, shopping malls, urban centers, housing tracts, etc. in the country.
By comparison, livestock production (including both grazing lands and croplands growing livestock feed) impacts an estimated 50-60% of all land area in the U.S. (Precise figures are lacking.)
Don’t take my word for it. Get up in an airplane anyplace in the Interior West and stare out the window (or check out Google Earth). I guarantee that once you leave the immediate surroundings of a major urban area, what you will see is not subdivisions, malls, or anything else we call sprawl. Instead what you will see for mile after mile are lands used for ranching—either grazed lands and/or hay fields and other crops planted to sustain cattle or, in more forested areas, used for timber production.
Open Space is Not the Same as Good Wildlife Habitat
Let me use Montana as an example. Montana is known for having some of the most intact wildlife populations left in the nation. Yet even in Montana there are quite a number of species that have suffered huge declines in population and geographical distribution, including prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets, wolves, grizzly bears, swift fox, sage grouse, Columbian sharp-tail grouse, bull trout, and Arctic grayling, among others.
Yet according to the latest census data, approximately 87% of Montana has 6 people per square mile or less. For all intents and purposes the majority of Montana is uninhabited—in other words there’s a lot of open space. So why can’t these Montana species thrive in a place that’s practically deserted? If “open space” were synonymous with good wildlife habitat, there would be few endangered species in Montana. In Montana, as in most of the West, animal agriculture is the single largest factor in species decline.
GAP analysis (using computer interpretation of air photos to determine land use—a highly accurate method) shows that only 0.17% of the state of Montana is affected by urban development. (This has changed slightly towards greater development since the study was done, but not significantly to affect general conclusions.) Thus it’s hardly subdivisions that are responsible for this huge decline in wildlife numbers and distribution.
The real culprits are agriculture and logging. For instance, in contrast to the one fifth of one percent of Montana that is developed, more than 5.5 million acres, or about 6% of the state, consists of irrigated crops that are primarily grown for livestock. In most cases the native riparian vegetation has been supplanted by a monoculture of exotic grasses, and is cut a couple of times a summer, reducing its effectiveness as hiding cover for wildlife.
Riparian communities are the most important wildlife habitat in the West, typically used by 70-80% of all wildlife species. Therefore, the degradation and loss of these riparian areas as a consequence of hay production has huge impacts on biodiversity. Let’s not forget the dewatering of our rivers for irrigated hay production and the consequent loss of fish habitat.
Hay fields may look nice and bucolic, but in terms of supporting great numbers of wildlife, they pale in comparison to the native plant community they replace. And hay fields are only one impact associated with livestock production. Some 70% of the state is pasture or rangelands used directly for livestock grazing, with its own share of serious ecological impacts.
A Blunt Tool
At best, livestock/timber production is a blunt tool for land and wildlife conservation. It is a passive, unfocused approach that only occasionally results in “coincidental conservation.”
Given the rapidly growing populations of many western states, relying on livestock producers and/or timber companies to maintain open space and critical wildlife habitat is a haphazard approach to land conservation. Such a strategy depends almost entirely on the whim of a landowner. Even if today’s rancher or timber company owners/stock holders are inclined to keep their property intact, the next generation or next owner may not.
If we want to control sprawl, there are effective, active methods that work: zoning, planning, conservation easements and outright acquisition. Though all have drawbacks, they can restrict or guide development. More importantly, they are a focused approach to land conservation that provides the best hope of protecting biodiversity in the face of growing human population. (Ultimately our own population growth and consumption needs to be dealt with—but those are issues that most governments and conservation organizations are loath to tackle).
Fortunately in some places people are realizing they cannot count on low-value land uses such as farming, ranching and timber production to prevent further development. Voters in Nevada, Colorado and Arizona have approved bond issues to fund land acquisition. States such as Oregon, New York (in the Adirondacks), and California (through the Coastal Commission) have instituted statewide or regional zoning that has dramatically reduced sprawl.
Furthermore, if the multiple subsidies that are annually bestowed upon large land owners including low property taxes, Ag and timber subsidies, the acceptance and thus costs of environmental externalities like water pollution, soil erosion, loss of wildlife habitat, and so forth, were included in the accounting of “keeping the rancher and/or logger out on the land” we might find it far less expensive in the long run to just buy the critical lands and permanently withdraw them forever from potential development.
The argument that we must choose between condos and cows (or condos and clear cuts) is a false one. Neither is desirable, and the negative impacts of all extractive land uses, including ranching, logging and sprawl, should be restricted to as small an area as possible. This is not as difficult as it may seem, since much of the ranching and logging in the West is marginal in productivity and easily replaced by reduction in demand through conservation of resources and other measures. Ironically a full accounting of environmental costs would help generate demand for alternatives since internalizing the full costs would make many of these products—beef and wood from marginal lands—too expensive to extract.
The sooner we begin to use proven focused land conservation tactics to thwart sprawl’s impacts, the better. However, we should not ignore the terrible environmental costs of livestock grazing and logging upon the land, native fish and wildlife. And if we must choose between either condos or cows/clearcuts, ridding the West of marginal livestock and logging operations would have greater ecological and economic benefits.