Horse News

Spencer Lennard: Subsidies turn Emigrant Wilderness into grazing nightmare

By Spencer Lennard Special to The Bee

“Instead of the pristine trout creek we expected, the otherwise spectacular Kennedy Creek was lined with thousands of steaming piles of cow dung, swarms of black flies, cow-trampled banks and waterways and green algae-filled water.”

Spencer Lennard is an avid hiker, mountaineer and public lands advocate who lives in Oregon.

Spencer Lennard is an avid hiker, mountaineer and public lands advocate who lives in Oregon.

Several friends and I recently embarked on what we hoped would be a wilderness adventure in California’s high country. What we found was nothing like that.

When we picked up the wilderness permit for our hike in the Emigrant Wilderness in the Stanislaus National Forest, we envisioned the Sierra high country to be wonderful fish and wildlife habitat lined with huge, picturesque ponderosa pines and white granite cliffs. The otherwise helpful rangers made no mention of the ecosystem wreckage we were about to encounter.

Instead of the pristine trout creek we expected, the otherwise spectacular Kennedy Creek was lined with thousands of steaming piles of cow dung, swarms of black flies, cow-trampled banks and waterways and green algae-filled water. Instead of what should have been lush, wildflower-strewn meadows at Kennedy Lake, we sunk into a green quagmire of muck created by a steady stream of cows cooling themselves in the shallows.

As we scurried to get above the algae-clogged Kennedy Lake, we encountered several fly fishers, horse packers, photographers and hikers – all aghast and expressing the same sense of disappointment as we were. Why would the National Forest Service and the California legislative delegation continue the taxpayer-subsidized damage to some of the state’s best sub-alpine habitat, especially here, in this increasingly popular recreational area?

As we swatted flies and stepped over the excrement, we were struck by the notion that this hiker’s paradise should not be a taxpayer-subsidized feedlot. We understood that grazing allotments were grandfathered into many wilderness bills – obviously including the Emigrant Wilderness – when they were designated as such. We know that policy change is slower than molasses, especially when ranching culture and environmental issues are being discussed. But we could not understand how the U.S. Forest Service and California’s blue congressional delegation could let such taxpayer-subsidized harm continue to degrade one of our most preciously beautiful places, especially when species and habitat loss are also at stake.

Holding our noses from the stench of urine and feces, we asked ourselves, “Why is this occurring in our diminishing wilderness, some of the best fish and wildlife habitat left in the Sierra?”

According to the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, grazing programs operated by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management receive an annual taxpayer subsidy of almost $445 million to facilitate a program that doesn’t benefit the public, wildlife or the land. This defacement of our national treasures is occurring just so a few ranchers can cash in their welfare checks.

Private, unirrigated rangeland in the West rents for an average of $11.90 per cow and calf, while monthly grazing fees on federal lands are currently a paltry $1.35. Despite the extreme damage done, western federal rangelands account for less than 3 percent of all forage fed to livestock in the United States. If all livestock were removed from public lands in the West, beef prices would be unaffected.

Cattle destroy native vegetation, damage soils and stream banks, and contaminate waterways with fecal waste. After decades of livestock grazing, once-lush streams and riparian forests have been reduced to flat, dry wastelands; once-rich topsoil has been turned to dust, causing soil erosion, stream sedimentation and wholesale elimination of some aquatic habitats. The now cow-trodden ecosystem has been robbed of its natural function, as is painfully evident on the landscape…(CONTINUED)

16 replies »

    • EponaSpirit, my concern about the SAFE Act is whether or not such a measure would work because under the WTO I think it is illegal to prevent a producer from being able to trade a product he has produced.


  1. Noticed the only comment on this story on the Sacramento Bee’s site was from an apparent welfare rancher. What is it going to take to get the cattle off of public lands? Maybe actually charging competitive rates for use of this land would keep it from being destroyed by the cattle since I’m sure that the ranchers won’t pay. Obviously these ranchers can’t claim that they have been using this land for many years since this degradation is much more recent. And the government sells out the American public AGAIN.


    • Vickie, it would be interesting to do an economic comparison, even in this one location. Figuring how much people spend to buy camping gear, food, permits etc. (along with the cost of using up vacation time or taking time away from work) compared with the $1.35/AUM for what is (probably) a short grazing season. I wonder what Californians would make of a legitimate cost/benefit comparison.


      • I wonder how much a nationwide billboard campaign on major interstates would cost showing before and after pictures of some of the degraded public lands from livestock grazing? Maybe horse advocates in each state could pool their funds for one or more billboards.


  2. So the cows are doing the damage and the horses are being blamed for it , so the horses are being take off the land and cows are going on the horses land and doing more damage, does this make nay sense to you? Sure does not to me . Our wild horses get the shaft again.


  3. The majority of the public (who own the lands) do not even know what is happening on their land and what is even sadder is that most don’t care – but WE do and must continue to fight.
    A recent grant was given to BLM to promote volunteers to do on-the-ground field evaluation of our public lands but when the BLM was asked what the volunteers would be doing we were told that ALL habitat usage and over-usage would be documented as wild horse and burro usage. When asked how the livestock usage was to be differentiated, the BLM repeated over and over that (regardless that livestock out-number the wh&b by about eight to one) … ALL range usage would be attributed to the wild horses and burros – period.
    This is the mentality of the BLM (and USFS) and how they play the “game”.


    • GG, that is alarming. Did you document this and can that information be provided as evidence of malfeasance? Unless there were no livestock there this “evaluation” data is useless and farcical.


    • Grandmagregg, I don’t think it is that people don’t care. It’s just that so many people have concerns that right in front of them like making their payroll or keeping their business.

      I feel very frustrated because I live in the East, and I tell people that they cannot understand what is happening in our country from inside the city, especially if the city is Washington.

      I was hopeful when Fox went to the Bundy ranch, but as soon as Cliven Bundy made his observation about black folks sitting on porches—people labeled him a racist—which was ridicules if you listened to what he was trying to say. His delivery was not the best, but people are so afraid to be labeled, and it is almost always the name callers that have something to hide.

      I think the Bundy story was important because he believes that his family owned the land BEFORE the land became federal land. But the key detail is that his grazing permits were denied in 1993, this was the year President Clinton signed the UN CBD.
      Article 8 (h) if federal law, and cattle are on the federal list of alien species. Of course, the list I saw that was sent to CAST had horses and burros on it, but not cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs.


  4. We need to remind all concerned that cattle truly are an introduced species on this continent, they were in fact brought by the Spaniards. They also brought horses but horses originated here and evolved within these ecosystems. In light of the vilification and removal of wild horses on the grounds they are “invasive species” the same argument must also be held up for cattle. We are spending millions annually to subsidize and encourage grazing by privately owned foreign species being raised for profit in our nation’s most sensitive and diminishing ecosystems.

    That all this occurs to produce a single digit percentage of our annual beef production, generally does such harm in only a few months each year, and includes massive external costs to wildlife (especially the witch hunt on predators paid for by taxpayers) is illogical at best. We can subsidize these few ranchers much more cost effectively by paying them to keep cattle OUT of these lands. Even if we PAID them $1.35/AUM for their typical numbers and duration of grazing, we would be millions of dollars ahead.

    So all you hikers, fishermen, and outdoor devotees who share the outrage of the author of the article here, I challenge you to contact Sally Jewell about your concerns. Her links and past benefits are tied to REI, a major outdoor retailer, and to The Sierra Club.

    It will take a concerted effort by millions of people to alter this byzantine system which does nothing but cost taxpayers year after year for so little evident return to the citizenry as a whole and the beleaguered public lands themselves.


  5. Awesome article. This needs to be plastered all over the front page of every newspaper in the country. Everyone needs to know what is happening to our public lands and wildlife, because of a few who seem to be able to do whatver they want. Including our government (BLM). Especially today, with what is happening to our beautiful mustangs in the Divide Basin. Loss of freedom, loss of family and loss of life so that the welfare ranchers can produce less then 3% of our meat. Really Congress, pull your heads out and do what is right for the American people, our public lands and wildlife – like you are suppose to do. As a taxpayer, I’ve had enough. I really do not like what you are doing with my hard earned money. I want something left for my grandson.


  6. For what its worth. I don’t think it is the animals that are the problem. I think it is the BLM’s failure to manage the land. Historically, the corruption began on the land in the early 1990’s, but as early as 1973 FWS was working on the Exotic Species exclusions. So the question I have is just how long ago did any of these agencies just, “What the heck? Why bother?”And just let the land deteriorate.


  7. Here is another point. Different but important. The argument from the IUCN and environmental groups is that they not the government are the experts. Therefore, they should have the authority.

    But how are they experts? They did not research on the basic premise of their theory that was species that did not originate where currently found are automatically harmful. Then, rather than figuring out that horses actually prefer older, drier, less nutritious grasses that short, rich, sugar filled grasses and that naturally gravitated to the part of the continent that is more arid and has drier grass, they try to get rid of the horses—prevent, control, and eradicate—the most native species here and one of the ones that is the most important.

    They make a big deal about the domestication bit, but scientists haven’t found any domestication genetic trait. Just from sitting in the pasture when my wild horse would run from me, I found that the horses—even the most timid eventually get curious about you. They come to explore called seeking behavior.

    Therefore, in the uncertain times we live in with threats all around the world that could attack our different power and water systems, it seems extremely foolish to try to wipe out a species that in the right numbers could mean the difference between life and death for us. The horses and burros can go places that no vehicle can go.

    Moreover, their manure could be turned into fuel with far less natural resource loss then ethanol.


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