Risk and uncertainty are inherent in the Western cattle industry. Natural events such as severe weather or disease outbreaks can easily spell disaster.
There are man-made disasters as well. Public policy decisions over the management of public lands can affect ranchers profoundly. Largely driven by population growth in the West, recent land-use policy trends are making the future loom as uncertain as dark clouds on the horizon for Western cattle ranchers.
Colorado State University rangeland ecosystem science Professor E. T. Bartlett, University of Wyoming Professor Larry Van Tassell, and U.S. Forest Service range scientist John Mitchell are trying to dispel some of those dark clouds with mixed results. A recent study by them has concluded that public land grazing in the West will decrease over the next 50 years. Urban sprawl, suburbanization, recreation, wildlife use, and allocation of lands for nonagricultural conservation use will limit livestock forage on public land particularly mountain livestock production. That finding, combined with the fact that public land grazing provides the basis for much of the West's livestock production, leaves little doubt that the region's cattle industry will be affected.
But there is a silver lining as well: By foreseeing this likely outcome, planners have time to develop likely alternatives to public land forage and to prepare ranchers and communities for the inevitable impact.
One thing most people don't realize, says Bartlett, is that ranchers in developing counties could have more alternatives for forage than those in counties with a traditional agricultural base. "In some areas, ranches have been bought with an eye toward development, but they haven't been developed yet, and the forage is still available," he explains. "We're also seeing more large homesites with a lot of open land, and these owners could be willing to lease their land for grazing to reduce fire hazards and to manage weed infestations."
With graduate student Helen Rowe and Cooperative Extension faculty DeLaine Brown of Moffat County, and CJ Mucklow of Routt County, Bartlett currently is exploring how public land policy changes would impact a developing county versus a traditional county. Next, Bartlett will work with faculty from Colorado State's Department of Sociology to determine what sociological impacts federal grazing policies will have on rural communities.
"This is an area that has not been looked at before," says Bartlett. "In the end, we will have a new methodology available so that communities can examine economic and social impacts and plan the future direction of land use in their county."
The recently completed study is part of a unique project sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service in cooperation with Colorado State University and the University of Wyoming. This study and others like it have been an outcome of the Western Coordinating Committee on Range Economics (WCC-55), in collaboration with the Western Association of Agricultural Experiment Station Directors and the USDA Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service.
A recent outgrowth of the WCC-55 is the Policy Analysis Center for Western Public Lands, which is funded by the Agricultural Experiment Stations of the western states. The center's advisory board, made up of interest group representatives and users, will decide which of the most pressing issues of the day should be addressed. Scientists then will be called upon to produce in-depth research and intensive studies.
"What is critical is the fairly quick turnaround time, because people need information 30 to 60 days before a decision is made," Bartlett says. "Questions need to be answered while they are still relevant so people can make informed decisions."
In time, the Policy Analysis Center for Western Public Lands will help land-grant institutions like Colorado State respond to people's information needs concerning public land issues in a more timely way and, hopefully, make those clouds on the horizon just a little less threatening.