Cow-Bombing the Public Lands of the American West

Conservationist, activist and writer Andy Kerr says that the militiamen “occupiers” in Oregon are misrepresenting the law and too few recognize the impact on the environment involved in grazing and raising livestock

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Story Transcript

JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome, everyone, back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.

While much of the attention paid to the ongoing so-called occupation of federal public lands at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon has focused on issues related to terrorism or violence, our next guest suggests that focus should be more on the environmental and legal ramifications of the claims made by those involved. Joining us now from Oregon is Andy Kerr, who is a conservationist, writer, and analyst with the Larch Company. Welcome, Andy Kerr, to the Real News.

ANDY KERR: Hello, there.

BALL: Before we get to Andy Kerr, let’s hear a little bit of, some of what those occupying gunmen have said about what they are doing and why they are there.

SPEAKER: Every one of you that says this is an occupation until their demands are met. You misunderstand. We’re not making demands. We’re not making demands. We’re here to work. These buildings here belong to Harney County. These are Harney County public lands. The state of Oregon. This is theirs. This is their land, this is their state. It’s theirs.

BALL: So Andy Kerr, you’ve heard the concerns, you have concerns about the legal and environmental implications of their demands. Can you talk about this and some of what the claims were, just even in that clip there?

KERR: Well, the lands don’t belong to Harney County, so they couldn’t be given back to Harney County. Harney County has never owned them, has no claim to them. These are federal public lands, in the case of–there’s a couple lands involved by the Fish and Wildlife Service as a national wildlife refuge. And the rancher that brought these outsiders to town in Burns, Oregon are, he grazes on Bureau of Land Management land. Both are agencies of the Department of Interior.

These are federal public lands. They always have been. And their claim that Harney County owns them is, is a, a fiction, a convenience of their world view, but it has no basis in fact or law.

BALL: Now, part of, at least as I understand, why they’re making those claims, is that they, they are claiming that they have a right to graze their cattle on those lands. And you have called these, what they’re calling grazing rights, as not a right but a privilege. Could you respond to that, and clear up any mistakes I may have made in my analysis of what they are saying as to why they’re doing what they’re doing?

KERR: Well, it’s not important if I think it’s a grazing right or a grazing privilege. It’s what the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled on many occasions, and that is grazing on the public lands by livestock permitees is a privilege that is, can be revoked. And so these guys like to talk about grazing rights. Grazing rights may be associated with private land ownership. But they’re not something that one talks about accurately and legally on federal public land. Grazing is a privilege that can be revoked if it’s harming the environment, harming water quality, harming wildlife.

BALL: You also say that livestock raising endangers plantlife species. But then what are they supposed to do for their livelihood, or to simply feed their, their livestock?

KERR: Well, I guess any business plan that’s based on the extinction of a species is not a sustainable business plan. And so what we have here is these guys are getting a 93 percent discount for the grass that they’re buying on federal public lands, yet some of them don’t even want to pay that amount. So they’re, they’re, the taxpayers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars supporting livestock grazing on federal public lands. And it’s harming watersheds, it’s harming ecosystems, and it’s harming species.

And public land ranching in the West is a very, very, very small part of the livestock grazing industry in the United States. Less than 2 percent of the beef forage comes off of federal public lands. There is more beef raised in Florida than in all of the Western states on public land. So just because a lot of acres are dedicated to something does not mean it’s ecologically important. And these bovine bulldozers are cow-bombing the public lands of the American West at the expense of wildlife ecosystems and watersheds.

BALL: You know, I did want to ask you about that. Could you explain a little bit by what you mean by ‘cow-bombing’, which is one of the claims you and others have made is what is going on there?

KERR: Well, these bovine bulldozers, you know, start, weigh in as adults at around 800 pounds. And they, they excrete 10 percent of their bodyweight each day in the form of urine and feces. And so they’re out mowing, eating the grass, beating down the vegetation, wallowing in the streams. And any forage that’s, that goes through a domestic cow on public lands, isn’t available for native wildlife like bighorn sheep or pronghorn antelope, or sage grouse, or butterflies. So it’s a, it’s a choice, what’s the highest and best use of that forage? And I would argue that federal public lands are more important for biological diversity and watershed protection and recreation than it is contributing an infinitesimally small amount to the nation’s beef supply.

BALL: You’ve also said there was, there was some discussion about the costs involved, and you talked about the 90–I think 93 percent subsidy, I think you said it was. But then I believe you’ve also made a comparison to the cost involved to raising a house cat to all of this cattle, saying that it was actually more expensive to, to raise a, a house cat. How could that be, and could you please explain what you meant by that?

KERR: The federal government determines its grazing fees based on a very arcane formula that has no basis in fact. The results are that a full adult female cow and a calf can graze on the public lands for one month for the price of $1.35. You can’t feed a house cat for that.

BALL: Well, Andy Kerr, thanks for joining us here at the Real News and helping us understand a little bit more of the context involved in this, this current ongoing so-called occupation.

KERR: All right, thank you.

BALL: And thank you all for joining us as well. And for all involved here at the Real News, again, I’m Jared Ball in Baltimore saying, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace, everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.

End

DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.