Dealing in Absolutes: Lessons Learned with Anti-Ranching Activists
I am a creature of compromise. It started as soon as I could understand my parents’ dinner-table conversations. Both of them work in human resources, making them among the most politically correct human beings on the planet. In their line of work mediation, collaboration and compromise are the Holy Grail. Civility and understanding are fundamentally important.
My education at Whitman, both academic and social, has reinforced this mindset: there is always a compromise, and we are all better served if we can sit down together and share a civil discussion. I learned to value balanced and two-sided approaches to issues and respected those who did the same. This is a mindset that I see as endemic to the Whitman population. Whitties would rather get along and find solutions agreeable to everyone than start controversy or rock the boat.
Accordingly, I developed an inability to deal in absolutes and distrust for those who did. I took pride in my openness to new ideas and encouraged such behavior in others. Not until this summer did I understand the power of absolute views to manifest in absolute, decisive action.
My work this summer shocked me into a more practical, but no less critical, way of thinking. I interned for ten weeks in beautiful Sun Valley, Idaho with Western Watersheds Project, a conservation group with the simple goal of completely removing all livestock grazing from Western public lands. Among those who debate resource use in the West, they stand out as radicals. Regardless, I went in with an open mind, ready to learn about Western resource conflicts and the inner-workings of non-profit groups.
Many of my summer responsibilities were carried out in the field, where I witnessed first-hand the destruction that livestock ranching causes. Western public lands ranching is the most destructive resource use in the American West due to the sheer area that it encompasses. The 11 westernmost states are 56 percent public. Several have a much higher proportion (Nevada is 84 percent public lands). Livestock are kept on nearly every suitable corner of this land.
The destruction cattle and sheep cause on these lands is obvious to those who care to look. Grazing destroys the landscape and displaces native wildlife. Moreover, it is a primary cause for the fences and roads that criss-cross the west; it encourages the needless hunting and killing of endangered grey wolves and other predators (at the behest of ranchers); it spreads invasive weeds such as cheat grass which cause wildfires to spread more quickly; it aggravates already tenuous issues of water rights, since many agricultural water diversions are used for livestock feed. An elite ranching lobby, entrenched in Western politics and federal agencies, rabidly defends this destruction. This turmoil produces only 2 percent of America’s beef.
WWP has been so successful in combating these abuses to the landscape that ranchers across the West know, hate, and often fear the organization. To date, they have gotten livestock completely removed from 150,000 acres of Western lands and reduced grazing numbers on thousands more acres, mostly through litigation and voluntary buy-outs. They have a long way to go to clear the 250 million acres of western public lands used for grazing, but they have certainly left a mark. Their Executive Director Jon Marvel is a powerful force in the environmental community.
At the outset of my internship, everything was going well. I was learning a ton, having a really good time and getting excited about WWP’s mission. I was doing real work with a successful organization. However, my first time alone in the field turned my idyllic summer job into a troubling ethical dilemma.
While touring a grazing allotment that WWP is currently working to shut down, I ran into a rancher—presumably the permitee of that allotment—driving the other way on a narrow dirt road. As he drove past, I found myself unable to look into his eyes. I could not stomach the fact that I, a liberal outsider from California, had come into his historic home to tell him that his way of life was wrong. Despite being immersed in the same destruction I’d spent weeks exploring, I spent the rest of that excursion deeply conflicted about my role on these lands.
My entire belief system–emphasizing compromise–told me that what I was doing was wrong. Surely livestock cause some environmental degradation, but does that demand a complete moratorium on grazing? Surely there is a middle ground that neutralizes much of the environmental impact but still allows some ranching? Is it necessary to flatly deny many thousands of ranchers their livelihoods rather than pursue some sort of collaborative management? Do I even have the right as a “city boy” environmentalist to embed myself in the politics of the rural West?
Ask any WWP staff-member and the answer is a quick, confident “yes.” Here lay the basis of my discomfort: WWP necessarily deals in absolutes. There is no way to balance Western public lands ranching to be both economically and environmentally stable. Its preservation as an industry serves only a small elite. Due to its broad destructiveness, Western public lands ranching absolutely must stop.
This troubled me for several weeks. I asked critical questions of various staff members and spent more time in the field seeing the ubiquitous destruction livestock has caused. I methodically exhausted every conceivable defense of the livestock industry. Eventually, I came around. I was able to deal in an absolute, and I’m glad.
The destruction caused by grazing benefits relatively few. Corporations hold the majority of grazing permits on public lands, and land is highly concentrated in their hands. Roughly 40 percent of grazing lands are held by three percent of permitees. Those lands not held by corporations are more likely to be used by millionaire ‘hobby ranchers’ than family operations. Ranching is not profitable at small or medium scales. On private land, it is nearly impossible to turn a profit without over-loading rangelands with unsustainable numbers of livestock. It is only possible on federal lands because of the pittance ranchers pay to rent them from the government—$1.35 per cow per month, compared to the $18 to $20 it can cost to lease state or private lands.
However, these facts didn’t alleviate my discomfort with forcing ranchers out of business. What if that permittee with whom I crossed paths depended on some meager ranching income to support his family? Or send his kids to college? This question plagued me until the bitter end of my internship. But again, a few key facts defend the absolute viewpoint.
The popular, idealized vision of Western communities as dependent on ranching and other resource uses is a myth. Rural western communities are dependent on government transfer payments (to fund, for example, fire and police departments, city administrators and public school teachers) for the majority of their income. There is not one community—town, city, county—in the American West that is dependent on public lands ranching.
Moreover, because of the financial instability inherent to ranching, what few small family ranches exist almost always have second incomes. As such, a complete moratorium on Western public lands ranching would not have widely devastating impacts on rural economies. I concede that this goal inevitably puts a small number of people out of much-needed jobs; I still am not comfortable with this fact. Yet, in the face of a much greater good, these few sacrifices are worthwhile.
By the end of the summer, a glorious change came over me. In accepting WWPs mission as the only rational conclusion to a much-raged Western debate, I freed myself to get truly passionate about the work that they were doing. While I acknowledge that there are still aspects of the issue I have not considered, I have kept a critical ear and heard enough to make an informed decision. In doing so I have become empowered to pursue determined action.
In studying politics, one consistent lesson has been the need to always dig deeper into problems with apparently clear-cut solutions. If you’ve stumbled upon a clear and obvious answer, you’re probably overlooking some critical detail. This mindset is as empowering as it is paralyzing. On the one hand, we become more critical observers of the world around us, ultimately coming up with superior solutions to the world’s problems. Yet, we can feel paralyzed into inaction if we forever complicate ideas, plagued by the imperfect solutions that they imply.
This is why learning to accept carefully thought-out absolutes is so important. Absolutes allow us to break down the paralysis seemingly inherent to those of us with a critical mind to ‘save the world,’ and take decisive action. Only once we have embraced an idea wholeheartedly and completely can we willingly dedicate our lives’ work to it.
This lesson has been the most important of my summer with WWP. Although I have realized that the health of Western landscapes will not constitute my life’s work, I appreciate having tasted the drive that comes with this kind of absolute passion. The experience has been empowering. I can only hope that as I enter my senior year and life beyond, I can incorporate a sort of bitter, passionate absolutism into the parts of my life where it is both appropriate and necessary, and in doing so begin to leave my mark on the world.