This is an essay by George Wuerther on the topic whether we have to choose cows or housing development. I put it up in reponse to Wilderness Muse’s query on another post.
Note: this was written in 2003.
Condos or Cows? Neither! (1-20-03 edit)
by © George Wuerthner
Ranching advocates present a false choice when they assert we must preserve ranching or suffer unrestricted sprawl.
Their ranching-as- land- preservation strategy is flawed in several ways.
First, livestock proponents vastly underestimate the ecological costs of livestock production. Growing cows in the West involves more than grazing grass, and the environmental impacts are countless and cumulative.
Second, livestock proponents ignore the vast differences between development and livestock production in the physical, geographical footprint. 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, livestock proponents often eschew mechanisms that succeed in preventing sprawl in order to promote livestock as the only viable alternative to full-scale development..
SPRAWL AND ITS IMPACTS
There is no denying that sprawl is socially and ecologically detrimental to human and wildlife communities. Sprawl fragments wildlife habitat, raises costs for services, increases energy use, forces longer commutes, requires more roads, spreads weeds and causes many other negative impacts that affect everything from taxes to wildlife migration patterns.
Fortunately, sprawl is relatively concentrated. Development is not the dominant feature of the West. The West is dominated by open space, as anyone who bothers to look can attest.
The majority of development in the West occurs around urban centers, where jobs, educational opportunities and amenities are found. Or it occurs in resort areas. Real estate developers aren’t rushing to North Dakota or many other parts of the West to cash in on the next bonanza. Rural towns such as Burns, Oregon, and Jordan, Montana, only wish they were a developer’s dream.
RANCHING ISN’T BENIGN
While ranching advocates are quick to point out the negative impacts of sprawl—as they should—they fail to apply the same critical analysis to the social and ecological effects of livestock production.
Livestock production involves crop production, water diversions, predator control, fences and many other activities that carry tremendous ecological costs. Livestock spread weeds, fragment wildlife habitat (particularly aquatic ecosystems because of water diversions for irrigation), transmit diseases to native wildlife, consume forage that would otherwise support native herbivores, trample soils, pollute water sources, degrade riparian areas and truncate nutrient flows.
The cumulative impact of livestock production across the West explains why it is responsible for more endangered species than any other land use. Livestock production is the largest source of non-point water pollution and soil erosion, the greatest consumer of water and a major contributor to wildfires. It’s also a chief reason why predators such as wolves and grizzlies have been reduced to token populations.
Though sprawl is consuming more and more land in the U.S., particularly in the West, animal agriculture affects 20 times more of the American landscape. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only 3.5 percent of the lower 48 states is developed, whereas livestock production impacts 70-75 percent of all land area in the U.S. This figure includes public and private lands that are grazed, and farmland used for forage crop.
Looking at the West, we see the same disparity between developed land and lands affected by animal agriculture. For instance, a GAP analysis conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey shows that only 530,000 of Colorado’s 66 million acres are affected by development, whereas 33 million acres are grazed by livestock.
Worse yet, more than 4.5 million acres of Colorado’s farmland are devoted to livestock forage crops such as feeder corn and alfalfa. These agricultural fields are every bit as disastrous as shopping malls for most wildlife. Hay or corn fields typically consist of exotic plants that are removed annually. Many of these crops are irrigated and guzzle precious water. Such fields effectively fragment and degrade more terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems than all urbanization and sprawl.
Open space is not the same as effective wildlife habitat. Even lands that are grazed rather than farmed remain unsuitable for many species. This becomes clear when you study a low-population state such as Montana. As anyone who has flown over Montana or driven along its empty highways can attest that there’s a lot of undeveloped land in the state. Recent population figures indicate that 87 percent of Montana’s land area has fewer than 6 people per square mile!
Only 0.17 percent of the state is affected by development. In contrast, nearly 70 percent of the land is grazed, and more than 5.5 million acres consist of irrigated crops that feed livestock.
For all intents and purposes, most of Montana is still uninhabited. So why are prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets, wolves, grizzly bears, swift foxes, sage grouse, Columbian sharp-tail grouse, Montana graylings and countless other threatened or endangered species unable to thrive in a place that’s practically deserted? If “open space” were synonymous with good wildlife habitat, there would be no endangered species in Montana.
The problem is clear. Animal agriculture has devastating effects on species and ecological processes such as predation, fire and nutrient flow.
LANDSCAPE SCALE CONSERVATION
Turning a blind eye to ranching impacts won’t prevent sprawl. At best, the hope that livestock production can contain sprawl is a blunt tool. It is a passive, unfocused approach that occasionally results in “coincidental conservation.”
Sprawl is driven by demand, a land grab that ranching does not guide or limit. Given the rapidly growing populations of many western states, relying on livestock producers to maintain open space and critical wildlife habitat is like playing Russian roulette. Such a strategy depends almost entirely on the whim of a landowner and rarely works to safeguard the ecological integrity of a landscape.
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.
Many states realize they cannot count on low-value land uses such as farming, ranching and timber production to prevent development. Thus they have embarked on more aggressive land-acquisition programs. Florida, California, New York and New Jersey, among others, have instituted large-scale acquisition programs designed to permanently protect lands from development. Florida, for instance, hopes to protect at least 50 percent of its land through this program.
Some western states have taken halfhearted steps in the same direction. 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. In New England, large-scale conservation easements have spared more than 1.8 million acres from development in the past few years alone.
The argument that we must choose between condos and cows is a false one. Neither is desirable, and both should be restricted as much as possible. If we enact proven land conservation policies and reduce the amount of land devoted to livestock production, I believe –the West will be a better place than it is today, even as more people discover its wonders and desire to live there.