A Reviewers Notebook: Locking up the Range
JULY 01, 1982 by JOHN CHAMBERLAIN
The “lower forty-eight” states of the United States have always been two countries. One is the country of trees and abundant rainfall, reaching from the Atlantic coast to just beyond the tier of states that stretches from Minnesota to Louisiana on the western bank of the Mississippi. The other country, beginning with the Great Plains and continuing westward through mountain territory that collects some irrigation water, is predominantly dry. The different characteristics have invited a confusion of counsel about title to lands, culminating in something that westerners know today as the Sagebrush Rebellion.
Gary D. Libecap, who teaches economics at Texas A&M University, has explored the implications of the Sagebrush Rebellion in a fascinating, though somewhat disjointed, book, Locking Up the Range: Federal Land Controls and Grazing, which is published by the Pacific Institute for Public Policy Research of San Francisco and marketed through the Ballinger Publishing Company of Cambridge, Mass., a Harper and Row subsidiary (109 pp.; $17.50 cloth, $8.95 paper). Briefly, Mr. Libecap’s message is that public—which means bureaucratic—management of grasslands, far from controlling the waste that comes with overgrazing, is bound to increase it. It is just one more example of the old truism that when “everybody” is responsible for something, nobody really minds the store. No wonder that states such as Nevada, Utah and New Mexico, where the federal government is the big land owner, have tended to support Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior James Watt in his contention, unusual for a government servant, that people on the spot might be better able to care for local resources than bureaucrats trying to extend their paper empires some thousands of miles away.
In a condensation of his own book, Mr. Libecap remarks that private parties, leasing sections of the 174 million acres of public land from the Bureau of Land Management in the Department of the Interior, have not had the economic incentive to make necessary improvements on the range property that supports their cattle. The result is that the lands remain below their production potential. The environmentalists, faced with the evidence that there has indeed been overgrazing and a consequent depletion of range fertility, have reacted by calling for more regulation and “multiple use.” But who can be trusted to regulate the regulators and to decide on alternative employment for acres which resist the growth of anything but grass or low-lying brush?
Secretary Watt’s answer is to offer some of the western public lands for sale to private ranchers. He has, naturally, been excoriated for the very suggestion. Nevertheless, in his attitude, Watt is the true Jeffersonian. As Jonathan R. T. Hughes of Northwestern University points out in a foreword to Mr. Libecap’s book, what the architects of our original national land policy wished to avoid was a “suboptimal use based on uncertain tenure.” In planning the Northwest Ordinance of 1785, Thomas Jefferson wrote that the federal government should sell all its vast domain to private owners, guaranteeing in the purchase contract that it should “never after, in any case, revert to the United States.” What Jefferson wished to avoid, says Jonathan Hughes, was government ownership of the means of production.
What Jefferson could not guess, despite the reports of the Lewis and Clark expedition, was that land laws designed for the well-watered East needed a special adaptation to the vast territories of what was then known as the Great American Desert. In the Ohio Valley, which was “west” to Jefferson, a small family could do very well on a quarter section or more of land. The quarter section dominated the thinking of the architects of the Homestead Act. Homesteading did handsomely by the generations that took up land on the so-called Middle Border reaching from Wisconsin to where the water began to run out along the hundredth parallel of latitude that bisects the Dakotas and Nebraska. But, as Jonathan Hughes puts it in graphic language, “the American wave of settlers and homesteaders exhausted itself on the edges and in the seams of the western deserts.” Dry-land farming had to depend on irrigation water that was problematical. The semi-arid grasslands west of the hundredth parallel could only support stock on vast reaches of territory. A General Land Office accustomed to doling out the continent in 160-acre patches could not cope with the necessities of cattle and sheep ranchers.
Overstocking and Overgrazing Unclaimed Public Lands
The first cattlemen lived by “prescriptive right,” using the open range on a first-come, first- served basis. The barbed wire enclosure of the small holding was naturally anathema to the first cowpunchers. Compromises reached by the late Eighteen-Eighties combined deeded homesteads with renewable grazing rights on still unclaimed public lands. But as long as the grazing rights were subject to political manipulation, the temporary possessors were inclined to get the most out of the land while the going was good. Where a profit-minded rancher would, under private ownership, refrain from destroying his own estate by overgrazing it, the temporary renter of public domain would have no qualms. Without secure tenure, says Mr. Libecap, “ranchers . . . were reluctant to invest in range improvements . . . expected returns were apt to be low since any benefits would be spread among all herders.”
Overstocking paid off in good years—but large herds were vulnerable to sudden drought. When the rains did not replenish the range, ranchers were forced to dump their animals, with consequent disruption of the market.
Insecure tenure, says Mr. Libecap, encourages overstocking and discourages investing in wells and fences. Ranchers have to contend with a situation in which the Bureau of Land Management administers 23 per cent of the acreage in the eleven far-western states. The BLM controls nearly 70 per cent of Nevada, more than 40 per cent of Utah, and some 20 per cent of Wyoming, Oregon, Idaho, Arizona, California, New Mexico and Colorado.
According to Mr. Libecap, 75 per cent of the world’s grazing lands which are facing depletion do not have secure tenure arrangements. He calls on Secretary of the Interior Watt to transfer the 174 million acres of rangeland under BLM control to private owners who would have personal stakes in judicious management. Since the purpose should not be to generate real estate profits, but to improve the land, the sale price should be nominal.
There would, of course, be a great hullabaloo if Secretary Watt were to offer the whole 174 million acres for sale at once. But sales in selected spots would provide good laboratory tests. The times are propitious—and Secretary Watt is just the man to stand the gaff of temporary criticism.