Federal Lands and Agriculture
Dry, windy, and sagebrush covered are often the scene on the federal lands in Wyoming. Whether situated in an infamous checkerboard pattern or a section or two here and there, these lands have stories to tell. Habitat for cattle, sheep, and many wildlife species allows for a patchwork of complex, intricate biological systems. To farmers and ranchers, it is intuitive to use the federal lands to produce food and fiber. Are many of these lands suitable for crop production? Not a chance. These vast expanses are an affordable way to graze domestic livestock and one of the only ways family ranches remain economically viable today. Approximately 30 million acres of Wyoming are federally owned and managed. For well over 150 years these lands provided food, fiber, and fuel to not only Americans but the world. Few places have a landscape that turns sagebrush into steaks and blankets.
Is this the best way to use this ground that is designed for the management objectives of multiple-use AND sustained yield? Yes, it’s certainly the basis of which federal lands management decisions should be made.
As Woodie Guthrie said, this land is made for you and me. Debates of the “best use” of the land have existed since the Louisiana Purchase (or for longer!) The public perception (those folks who don’t rely on the land for a living) is that these lands should be for activities, not ranching. There’s seemingly no end to the activities that take precedence over food and fiber production these days–oil and gas, utilities, hiking, climbing, fishing, hunting, four-wheeling/off-roading, stargazing, camping, photography, geocaching, frisbee golf, music festivals, and more activities that use this land but don’t always directly benefit the land.
It’s important to remember that recreation has its place, but the agricultural use of the land is daily. Often farms and ranches have invested time and money into improving their leased federal lands that benefit their livestock along with wildlife. Ranchers are stewards of the land and they are tasked with ensuring that the land is not just usable, but thrives for the long run, for themselves, for the wildlife, and for all the parties who wish to use the land for their various interests. Ranchers don’t get to come to visit for the week or a weekend, they are there for the good times and the bad. If someone leaves a mess–torn-up fences, roads, and a bunch of trash based on my personal experience–it is up to the landowner to get it cleaned up.
Don’t get me wrong, the public uses aren’t all bad. Local businesses love when the snowmobiles come to town, spending money at grocery stores, restaurants, bars, and hotels. In today’s economy, some towns are only holding on by the dollars that tourism brings in. Oil and gas companies pay their share of taxes so that we all have great roads to drive on and our schools are well funded. The hunters and anglers fund conservation from their tags and gear purchases.
A challenge for the rancher is of having people come in and disturb their ranches while recreating. Sure, it’s great that hunters will keep the elk off of their hay piles, but unless a ranch has ventured into guided hunts, they don’t receive any income from elk shot on the public land they lease. Furthermore, some public land management agencies tend to favor wildlife to range life when determining grazing allotments and usage. And to the public, ranchers are often seen as getting in the way of their recreation. Who wants to shut a gate when you’re hot on the tail of a record-breaking bull elk? If you’re out for a hike and a big, white sheepdog comes and startles you, you might lose sight of how good lamb chops are at your next cookout.
Wyoming ranchers have been, and will continue to be, stewards of the land for generations in the past and generations to come.
By Kelly Carpenter, Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation National Affairs Associate