The WWP blog has a good take on a fairly recent, and continuing development. Conservation groups are buying ranches and assuming the grazing permits on adjacent public land, and in their words showing how running livestock can be done right.
Wrong. The lands of the Western United States did not evolve with cattle grazing them, and cattle do not take the place of bison, elk, deer, etc.
1. Consider that cattle are today completely artificial animals. There are no wild cows. The ancestors of cows no longer exist. They are extinct.
2. While the Texas longhorn cattle used in the early days of the West were much more capable animals at survival, they have long been replaced by tender cows like Angus.
3. Grasses and forbs did evolve under the pressure of grazing, but not grazing by cows. They were grazed variously by elk, deer, bison, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, all large ungulates to be sure, but they graze differently than cows. They were, and still are also grazed by rodents and insects.
4. In the more arid areas, there was little to no grazing by large ungulates, but only by rodents and insects. Here the introduction of cattle was especially obnoxious and damaging, e.g., the deserts of Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho and Wyoming.
5. If a conservation group takes over grazing of cattle, the best they can do is to graze in in less damaging way. If a conservation group wants to improve the West, they should buy a ranch and retire if from cattle, sheep, goat, and pig grazing. The land will still be grazed. It will be grazed by native animals. The job of a conservation group running a ranch should be elimination of non-native plants, including truly devastating invaders like cheat grass, and the restoration of the watersheds
6. The place to graze cattle is fenced pasture where there is ample water, and native vegetation has been converted to something artificial (meaning human made forage) that will support this artificial animal. In fact, most of the beef production in the United States occurs this way and in feedlots. The grazing of cattle on hundreds of millions acres of non-irrigated Western lands, relying on native forage contributes little to the beef supply. Furthermore, in my view, it is almost entirely what economists call a negative externality — unintended costs of an economic activity that are passed onto other parties (by-standers), including the environment.
7. The notion that cattle and the West go together is the creation of the myth of the cowboy; first by dime novel writers, and later by Hollywood. Euro-American settlers did bring and rely on cattle, but that is because they did not know better. In doing so, they transformed the West, damaging it greatly.
8. Elimination of grazing on the semi-arid and arid lands of the West will have almost no discernible effect of the price of beef. What will and is having an effect on beef and the price of many foods is the conversion of millions of acres to corn to ethanol production, which will very soon prove to be one of the biggest boondoggles in the history of Agriculture because it produces almost no net energy — it converts food grown with massive amounts of petroleum into an approximately equal amount of another combustible hydrocarbon — ethyl alcohol. Had it been said 30 years ago that when we run out of oil, we will use vodka (actually Everclear) everyone would have seen the absurdity.
Update: Today Idaho political pundit Dan Popkey joined in the celebration of some conservationists and ranchers holding hands (courtesy) and taking from the Idaho taxpayer to save land from second homes by means of tax credits. The credits shovel yet another subsidy to ranchers so they will voluntarily keep their land as ranches (at least until they find it in their economic interest to subdivide). Trouble is there is little evidence that this has worked anywhere to protect land from subdivision (except where there is no economic incentive to subdivide anyway). (Celebratory blather by Dan Popkey). Dan Popkey: Help keep Idaho one of the last best places to live. Idaho Statesman.
Note: the real check on second homes is (will be) the rising cost of energy. Second homes in rural areas really drain energy and will cost more and more relative to building where there is already an infrastructure.