Agricultural Studies

Use of Public Lands for Grazing

The issue of grazing on public lands has been a controversial one going back even before the passing of the Taylor Grazing Act. There are many good arguments in favor of it, including strengthening economies through stabilizing and promoting the beef industry.  There are also many drawbacks, particularly the environmental damage that grazing – and overgrazing – can cause  to the local ecosystems.  For any policy to work, both the negative and positive impacts of grazing on public lands will have to be considered and worked into a feasible plan of action. This paper outlines arguments for and against the grazing of livestock on public lands and talks a little about public policy in the future of this controversial topic.


There are good arguments in favor of allowing grazing of livestock on public lands.  Since the Taylor Grazing Act was passed in 1934, allowing ranchers to graze their cattle on public lands, the policy has helped to stabilize and promote the ranching industry, which is very important to the US economy, especially the economies of the Western states.  The ads tell us “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner” and it is true that the American (and world) demand for beef is high and has remained high in recent times. There is no denying that this demand, in turn, puts an enormous pressure on ranchers to produce, and the use of public lands for grazing all these cows seems sensible and will help our country maintain and increase food production, which is always an important consideration.  In many cases, the lands which are used for livestock are not arable – in other words, they cannot be farmed with crops like corn or wheat, so the use of them for cattle does increase the overall land available for the production of food.  There is also evidence that in certain habitats, grazing can actually help promote the growth of native vegetation, partly by mimicking the role that other grazers (such as bison) filled in the Western ecosystems in the past.


There are also strong arguments against the grazing of livestock on public lands. The environmental concerns about this practice are legitimate and need to be considered in the making of any public policy regarding this issue.  One thing that is of major concern is that grazing – more specifically overgrazing – can lead to loss of vegetation and this leads to an increase in soil erosion.  In turn, the soil erosion and increased run-off of silt, sand, and clay can not only lead to loss of topsoil, it can negatively impact water quality by.  Among other things,  this can decrease water clarity which can lead to less photosynthesis of aquatic plants due to less sunlight coming through the muddied waters.  When this happens, the impact is felt throughout the habitat from the bottom up.  Many studies have show that in regard to loss of species, grazing has had more impact on the West in particular than either mining or logging, and many predators are targeted and killed each year by ranchers defending their livestock, which can especially impact species like wolves and large cats like mountain lions. There is also the issue of expense: the US spends millions of dollars a year for subsidies to finance the grazing of public lands, and reclamation of previously grazed land can be expensive as well.  Since this is public money, all taxpayers have a stake in seeing that the money is well-spent.


In all likelihood, it would neither be advisable nor even desirable to settle this issue of grazing on public lands once and for all.  Rather, the issue should be looked at on an ongoing basis, with plenty of room left for evaluation and for experimentation with new techniques.  Policies should also be considered on the basis of habitat, as some habitats may be able to be grazed more heavily or frequently, while other habitats are more delicate and require more careful handling.  Whatever policies are developed should attempt to strike some sort of balance between the needs of the cattle industry to maintain their livestock and the needs of the ecosystems that are being grazed.  Policies would also be more effective if they could be a coalition of all parties with a stake in these issues: policy-making governmental bodies on the federal, state, and local level, along with conservation/environmental groups and livestock/ranching associations.  If all stakeholders are allowed a say and feel committed to the policies,  they would be more likely to be effective and effectively enforced.  It is very unlikely that an issue this controversial, however, will be settled by any amount of political maneuvering, no matter how astute.