History and Management of Public Rangelands in the United States: A Case Study from New Mexico

By Alexandra Heller
2015, Vol. 7 No. 04 | pg. 3/3 |

The Responsibilities and Privileges of Ranchers

The BLM encourages active stewardship of these lands by the ranchers who lease them, and provides regional and national rewards for the best stewards. While some ranchers are able to use water from a river or well on site, most must haul water into their livestock animals. The BLM pays for the initial material costs in constructing both fences and water catchment or holding systems, but the permittee is required to cover labor costs, as well as the cost of labor and materials needed to maintain these structures.

James cares about these lands as a technician for the BLM and as a rancher. He owns livestock in southern Colorado, and holds a permit for public grazing rights close to his property there. James admits that these days ranching is a difficult business, though cattle is in short supply and the price of beef is higher than James has ever seen: two dollars a pound as opposed to sixty cents a pound when James first began ranching. A lot of work goes into maintaining the health of the herds as well as the forage. It used to be that a family needed one hundred cows to make a decent living ranching. Now the number is more like five hundred. James attributes this to the rising cost of living.

The BLM has stated,

“The Bureau administers public land ranching in accordance with the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, and in so doing provides livestock-based economic opportunities in rural communities while contributing to the West’s, and America’s, social fabric and identity. Together, public lands and the adjacent private ranches maintain open spaces in the fast-growing West, provide habitat for wildlife, offer a myriad of recreational opportunities for public land users, and help preserve the character of the rural West” (Gorey 2013).

It is evident through talking to James and researching the livestock industry that there is, indeed, immense passion and investment in this livelihood. The Sagebrush Rebellion illustrates this passion well, and refers to the numerous manifestations of a movement to privatize public lands and advocate for state rights to natural resources. The Sagebrush Rebellion, which first emerged in response to the passage of the FLPMA, is led by members of the livestock industry, as well as others involved in the commercial pursuits of public lands. These pursuits include the practice of resource extraction, with such resources as timber, natural gas, oil, mineral materials, and mineral solids (Tremkin & Wald 1982).

Sagebrush Rebels claim that the federal government has arbitrarily limited the full economic potential of public lands, and that the economic benefits from these lands go to the federal government rather than states and citizens (Tremkin & Wald 1982). This movement is opposed by most state and wildlife agencies, as well as national and western conservation and environmental groups, who worry that the states or individuals would regulate these lands with a single-use policy, commercial enterprise, instead of the multiple-use policy that the federal government has instated (Tremkin & Wald 1982). Not every rancher is a Sagebrush Rebel, and as research into the ecological phenomena of rangelands increases, more ranchers see a need to manage rangelands holistically, with regard to the many ecological processes that livestock grazing influences (Sayre 2001).


Grazing on public lands is important to the history of U.S. public land policy and persists as an important economic and cultural practice for many families in the west. The original policies controlling grazing on public lands in the United States imply that these arid landscapes are useless for anything except grazing cows. This is not true, economically or otherwise, though the diversity and abundance of these landscapes decreases when they are managed solely for economic gain.

It may seem implausible that economic, conservation, and recreation objectives can be fully realized on the same tracts of land. However, with attention to the multifaceted nature of ecosystems, a changing climate, diligent research, and a holistic approach that considers multiple objectives, land management agencies may be able to develop a paradigm that supports the multiple uses that the Bureau of Land Management has set out to provide for.


Anderson, J. (2000). Public Lands Council v. Babbitt: Herding Ranchers Off Public Land?. Brigham Young University Law Review, 2000(3), 1273.

Beschta, R. L., Donahue, D. L., DellaSala, D. A., Rhodes, J. J., Karr, J. R., O'Brien, M. H., Fleischner, T. L., Williams, C. D. (2012). Adapting to Climate Change on Western Public Lands: Addressing the Ecological Effects of Domestic, Wild, and Feral Ungulates. Environmental Management, 51:474-491. doi 10.1007/s00267-012-996-9.

Cawley, R. McGreggor. (1993). Federal Land, Western Anger: The Sagebrush Rebellion and Environmental Politics. Lawrence, KS: The University Press of Kansas.

Costanza, R. & Mageau, M. (1999). What is a Healthy Ecosystem? Aquatic Ecology, 33, 105-115.

Donahue, Debra L. (2000). The Western Range Revisited: Removing Livestock from Public Lands to Conserve Native Biodiversity. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Gorey, T. (2013). Fact Sheet on the BLM's Management of Livestock Grazing. Retrieved from http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/prog/grazing.html.

Merrill, Karen R. (2002). Public Lands and Political Meaning: Ranchers, the Government, and the Property Between Them. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Peterson, J. (2012). A Solution to Grazing Where Seemingly Everyone Wins. Adventure Journal. Retrieved from http://www.adventure-journal.com/2012/03/a-solution-to-grazing-where- seemingly-everyone-wins/

Sayre, Nathan Freeman. (2001). The New Ranch Handbook: A Guide to Restoring Western Rangelands. Santa Fe, NM: The Quivira Coalition.

Smith, T. M., & Smith, R. L. (2009). Elements of ecology. San Francisco, CA: Pearson Benjamin Cummings.

Temkin, E. H., & Wald, J. H. (1982). The Sagebrush Rebellion: The West Against Itself – Again. UCLA Journal of Environmental Law and Policy, 2(2). Retrieved from http://escholarship.org/uc/item/3d2722zk.

U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management. (2013). BLM Public Land Statistics. Retrieved from http://www.blm.gov/public_land_statistics/pls12/pls2012-web.pdf.

U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management. (2013). New Energy for America. Retrieved from http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/prog/energy.html.

U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management. (2012). Westward Expansion: The Public Domain to the Creation of the BLM, 1812 – 1946. Retrieved from http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/info/history/Westward.html.

U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey. (2001). Biological Soil Crusts. Retrieved from http://fresc.usgs.gov/products/fs/fs-065-01.pdf.

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