The fight this year in the Idaho Legislature over bighorn sheep demonstrated to me that Idaho and the West need a new vision for the future of public lands ranching in the state.
This session returned ranchers and lawmakers to "ghost dancing," a term I first heard from Luther Probst of the Sonoran Institute in the early 1990s. It's a play on the ghost dancing society among Indians in the late 1800s, which said that ghost dancing would make Indians invincible and drive the white men away.
Modern rancher ghost dancers think they can pass state laws and drive the environmentalists away. No need to change is necessary.
I have now covered the issue for a generation. I knew the old bulls who had the power to ignore the rising concerns over water quality and fish and wildlife habitat. I watched their sons and daughters take over amid growing uncertainty over environmental regulation and the consolidation of beef and lamb markets that reduced their economic options.
Some ranchers have adjusted successfully, working collaboratively with environmentalists and others to meet the water and wildlife concerns. Still others have found ways to add value to their products by exploiting the growing "buy local" movement or green marketing their shifting practices like selling "predator friendly wool."
The Western Watersheds Project and some other environmental groups' vision for the future of public lands ranching is that it will end. They see few redeeming characteristics and believe that, eventually, economics will solve their problem.
But ranchers have working on their side the continuing cultural ties that Americans have to cowboys. When public lands ranching opponents seek to kill the cowboy, so to speak, they find a lot of push back among people who may never have even been on a ranch.
The Idaho Conservation League's Linn Kincannon told me one of her supporters proposed a new idea to keep ranchers riding the range - with a new mission. Today, ranchers lease public lands, called allotments, across the West for a small monthly fee and graze their sheep and cows, she said.
Instead, livestock would be removed and ranchers paid to restore lost values. Experts at the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management would help, and the rancher would retain the allotment, shes explained.
The agencies would save money since they would no longer be planning and doing the environmental analysis for livestock grazing on the allotment. That money could be paid to the ranchers instead, to free them from uncertain weather and cattle markets.
That idea is novel, but I know that most ranchers would reject it outright. I doubt many would be willing to give up their herds, though I'm sure they might be willing to dramatically reduce their grazing on public land if the incentives were good enough.
Another option: Public land managers and policymakers could devise a new model for grazing allotments that would pay ranchers for essentially becoming rangers who patrol these lands and who create ecological services like land restoration and water quality improvement. I first heard this idea from Karl Hess Jr., a New Mexican who sought market solutions to environmental problems.
This approach wouldn't have to mean removing cattle or even sheep.
In some areas grazing itself can provide ecological services by controlling invasive species and reducing fuels in heavily degraded areas that carry wildfires into important sagebrush steppe habitat.
What I like about the idea Kincannon brought me is that it doesn't seek to eliminate or denigrate the ranching lifestyle, only to modify it for a new age. This is a good time for ranchers and others to begin having this discussion built on the collaborative efforts that are growing up across the West.
© 2009 Idaho Statesman