The behavior of Congress might seem unusually erratic, but one thing can be confidently predicted: The Interior Appropriations bill for 2012 will contain the largest cuts in conservation funding in 40 years. Look for lots of hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth in environmental circles.
For many reasons, though, I see this as a godsend for ranchers across the West. Whenever public land expands, the private land near it tends to face increasing regulation, which has been the pattern for approximately 100 years. Much of our public policy and funding has been dedicated to protecting our rich estate of public lands. But what few people understand is that most of the West's public land is over 3,000 feet in elevation; our federal conservation lands are an inventory of rock, ice, evergreen forests and high sagebrush deserts.
Private ownership is where the West's most bio-diverse lands exist, and they are found where the region's lifeblood is—around water. Privately owned ranches host the bulk of riparian areas, creating the arteries and veins that flow through our arid and mountain regions. That makes Western ranches the most important segment of private lands in America today—far more important than lands east of the Mississippi. They're crucial because they provide all the water for Western metropolitan areas as well as the water that's needed to nourish agriculture, fish, wildlife biodiversity and winter ranges. Ranchlands also provide water for recreation and offer thoroughfares for transportation and our energy grid.
If we want to save the American West as part of America's great heritage, we need to save its ranchers. Unfortunately, traditional federal government programs and conservation dollars don't provide the help they need. The most serious problem facing ranchers these days is purely demographic: The average rancher is over 60 years old. More than ranchettes, ski areas, and oil, gas and coal development, the aging of our ranching community is dictating the destabilization and loss of ranches across the West. That is why ranchers need an array of tools and services to help them achieve both a sustainable future and a smooth transition within their families and associations. Once they do that, their working ranches can survive and even prosper in the 21st century.
Because ranchers tend to be conservative, individualistic and self-help-oriented, the organization I lead, Resources First Foundation, takes Lao Tzu's approach: "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish; feed him for a lifetime." The nonprofit offers an array of Web-based tools and services for the ranching community.
I know that in the environmental community, most people think land trusts are the solution; I think they are only part of it. The Private Landowner Network, for instance, hosts over 1,000 attorneys specializing in tax and estate planning and conservation practice, because before a rancher contacts a land trust, he will more likely call an attorney or tax and finance advisor.
Why? It all comes down to a matter of trust. In many ranchers' eyes, unfortunately, the environmental community and its many offshoots are not sources to be trusted. That is why the websites the foundation lists are neutral and avoid any environmental advocacy. In addition to attorneys, we host consulting foresters, ag extension offices, conservation districts, appraisers and hundreds of wildlife, grazing and irrigation companies. We list all the federal (USDA and Interior Department) programs that have technical assistance or on-the-ground program services for landowners, plus most state programs that apply. And we include clean energy services, such as home wind-system providers, bio-fuels and new financial players for carbon markets.
So when you hear the outcries against reductions in federal funding for land acquisition, don't forget that even minimal funding adds to a federal infrastructure that's groaning under the weight of an enormous operations and maintenance overload—to the tune of $25 billion in 2010. Think instead of ways to support the livelihood of ranchers across the West. Whenever you can, buy grass-fed beef from the nearest rancher. It's not only good economics for the ranchers; it's good eating for you.
Think also of supporting ways to assist ranchers' long-term survival and intergenerational succession. So far, the most important tool on the horizon is the Gerlach-Thompson Conservation Easement Incentive act, HR 1964. Currently pending in Congress, it extends tax deductions for conservation easements and will do more to perpetuate the legacy of ranchers than all the traditional programs combined.
Amos Eno is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He directs the Resources First Foundation, a nonprofit that connects people to conservation.