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Can America’s West stay wild?

Policy on vast public lands has favored ranchers. Demographics and economics may alter that equation now.

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Rick Knight, professor of wildlife conservation at Colorado State University, Ft. Collins, says it’s not so simple. The fates of public and private lands are intertwined in the West. Whither goes one, so goes the other, he says. “If you want to save our natural heritage, you have to save both public and private,” Professor Knight says. “They are interlaced.”

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Mark Brunson, a professor in the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University, Logan, says that without low-cost grazing permits, many ranchers would go out of business. But it’s no throwaway subsidy. If done sustainably (as he and others say it can be), ranchers provide an invaluable service. They supply locally raised beef for a burgeoning locavore movement. Less tangible is the “living cowboy culture” they provide.

“The culture of ranching, which is also part of the American psyche, is also important,” he says.

Cultural heritage vs. land and species preservation
To many, this last argument falls flat. De­­structive professions shouldn’t be subsidized, no matter how iconic. If the concern is development, address it directly with zoning laws.

Demographic shifts long under way may change this debate. If the question is what the public values more – a working landscape or a pristine one – the “keep it pristine” camp is on the rise. (Disturbed by rapid development, even farmers and ranchers have begun to push for more landscape-friendly zoning.) Analyses of the past 40 years of economic growth show that preserving nature is the better long-term investment, economists say.

With its expanses of relatively pristine nature and a modern infrastructure, the US West is unique, says Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit in Bozeman, Mont. The region has long been a magnet for immigrants. But late-20th-century arrivals were not, as they once had been, mostly people seeking to work the land. Resource extraction, once a mainstay, is an ever-shrinking portion of western economies.

Profound economic, demographic shifts under way

Between 1970 and 2000, nonlabor jobs fueled 86 percent of this growth. Mining, timber, and agriculture (including ranching) contributed only 1 percent. Now, 93 percent of jobs in the West have no direct link to public lands, says Rasker. But wilderness areas, in conjunction with infrastructure like airports, correlated closely with areas that saw the greatest growth.

“The major contribution is that it creates a setting,” he says, and that’s what immigrants want. Conserving rather than exploiting nature makes more economic sense, he says. People move here to live near nature.

Land-management agencies have been slow to recognize the new role of unspoiled public lands as an amenity, he says. But they’re coming around. The marked “blue shift” in the politics of Western states in the recent election suggests a more conservation-minded public.

For Thomas Power, an economist emeritus at the University of Montana, Missoula, the puzzle is why the shift didn’t come sooner. He attributes the inertia to the nation’s love affair with the idea of ranchers.

“People move here partly to play out the fantasy of being a cowboy,” he says. “Rather than having attitudes different from long-term residents, they were trying to imitate or share in many of those attitudes.”

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