by D. J. Alden and Steven Miller
Conventional wisdom within the Silver State’s media and political establishment has long assumed that the state’s city folks don’t really care about what’s going on out beyond the outskirts of Las Vegas and Reno. But an important new study suggests urban Nevadans are much more supportive of their cow-county compatriots than most observers ever suspected.
Yet the timing of this new report is almost bitterly ironic. The new information comes just as the federal destruction of the Silver State’s cow counties—a process already in motion for decades—is gaining powerful new momentum. In the following two articles, Nevada Journal explores both legs of this paradox.
I. Losing Ground
hey are called Nevada’s "cow counties"—Humbolt, Elko, Lander, Eureka, White Pine and Nye. Yet the fact is, the cows in those jurisdictions are disappearing. And as those cattle and livestock depart, so also departs the state’s rural tax base.
Actually, all the former mainstays of rural economies—mining, logging, livestock raising and agriculture—are losing ground. The reasons for the decline always vary a bit by locale, but nearly always the critical actor—or malefactor—in the decades-long drama has been the federal government.
ack when the United States was formed, the original intent of the Founding Fathers was to dispose of what we today call "federal lands." But in the last century an increasingly covetous national government has chosen to retain those lands and even—lately—secure more. Resisting efforts to privatize the land, the federal government followed a basically socialist model and resorted to command-and-control state bureaucracies, fueled by taxpayer money, to manage its Western holdings. Under the socialist model, however, no individual owns the land and no one with a direct interest in the welfare of the land bears responsibility for its care and management.
The result has been and continues to be federal mismanagement of the Western lands under politically driven agendas.
That mismanagement is now reaching a critical phase in the state of Nevada.
Grazing in the Silver State
he grazing ranges that cover Nevada’s chief cattle-raising counties have long been recognized as one of the prime range cow areas in the United States.
According to Dr. Tony Lesperance of Great Basin Resource Management in Elko, the sagebrush steppe that covers the region reliably produces—in its cool, usually moist, growing season—a multitude of bunch grasses. Then the following hot dry summer and fall normally cure the grass into forage very useable by livestock.
"Properly managed," says the former University of Nevada, Reno professor of animal and range science, "this resource has provided the necessary nutrition for hundreds of thousands of cattle for over 130 years."
Lesperance chronicled the economic decline of Nevada’s cowboy country in a 1995 study he called "Cowboys, Bureaucrats and the Long Rope of Justice." The paper, updated in 1998, chronicles the livestock numbers for the state and the cow counties for a quarter of a century. After reaching a modern-day high in 1982, notes Lesperance, cattle and calf numbers have fallen almost every year—and so drastically in the six cow counties that statewide numbers, too, have nose-dived. Thus on January 1, 1982, total cattle and calves in Nevada totaled 700,000. However by January 1, 1997, they had dropped to 520,000.
"The majority of the livestock losses," says Lesperance, "can be directly attributed to changes in management philosophy by the federal land management agencies, including the BLM and USFS. Changes in wilderness status, endangered species, wild horse management and more recently the use of new ‘proper use’ criteria all have contributed to this decline in the once healthy livestock industry."
The Hit to the County
very ranch animal, notes Lesperance, represents economic wealth not only to the ranch’s owner, but also to the county. When a ranch loses access to some of the forage that has allowed it to support its cows or horses or sheep, that loss of forage and resulting loss of animals not only constitutes an effective capital loss to the ranch, but also to the county where the ranch is part of the tax base.
Dr. Lesperance, basing his analysis on the total value represented by each cow—figuring in the attendant values of real estate, equipment, etc.—calculated the hit to the average ranch with the loss of an animal unit at around $2,325. The impact on the local county tax base figures out to be about half of that—$1,162.50.
Writing in 1995, when cattle and calves in Nevada’s six cow counties were down 135,000 from 1982, Lesperance said that figure would equate to about 101,250 animal units. Thus the lost tax base to the six rural cow counties in those 16 years, he wrote, could add up to as much as $118 million.
But that’s not the worst of it. Northern Nevada ranches spend on average $350 per cow per year, and the direct dollar impact of those lost cows quickly adds up.
"For 1983," he writes, "this value amounted to $2,170,000 and [had] increased to $27,615,000 for the year 1995."
But Lesperance points out there’s also the indirect effect of the lost ranch income:
"Every time a rancher directly purchases goods in the community, the community business is also able to make additional purchases. A recent university publication indicated for Humboldt County that the indirect impacts are approximately 1.32 times the direct impacts."
The Meaning of Lost Cows
or example, the indirect impact of 1983’s lost cows, calculated Lesperance, was $2,864,400, while in 1995 the impact was $36,451,800.
Totaling the direct and indirect dollar impact per year, and then summing up all of the years from 1983 through 1995, Lesperance puts the total economic impact of the decreasing cow numbers in Nevada’s six rural cow counties during that period at almost $521 million. Furthermore, because of the trends since 1983, he also predicts a continual loss to the counties of about 8,000 cows per year, or an additional $6.5 million annually.
The significance of all this in human terms is that in Nevada’s rurals an entire way of life is being destroyed.
More article at link: http://nj.npri.org/nj98/12/cover_story.htm