Thursday, August 11, 2011

National forests: Recreational payoff and grazing benefits

 by John Maday

Recreation and tourism bring dollars to communities near national forests, but ranching and public-lands grazing play a key role too.

A new report from the USDA’s National Forest Service shows that recreational activities on national forests and grasslands make large economic impacts on America's rural communities, contributing $14.5 billion annually to the U.S. economy. This week’s “National Visitor Use Monitoring report” indicates national forests attracted 170.8 million recreational visitors and sustained approximately 223,000 jobs in rural communities this past year.

"This data shows once again just what a boon our forests are to local economies," says Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. "Because of forest activities, thousands of jobs are supported in hundreds of rural communities. We are proud of helping to put a paycheck into the pockets of so many hardworking Americans."

The report focuses on recreational use of these public lands, noting a high visitor-satisfaction rate and the money recreational visitors spend in communities near national forests and grasslands. These impacts surely are important, with tourism and recreation representing significant contributions to local economies, particularly in Western states featuring expansive public lands. This report, however, does not document the economic, environmental and social contributions of public-lands grazing.

Many ranchers in Western states rely on grazing allotments on Forest Service lands and other public lands for summer range. These arrangements allow them to maintain much larger herds than they could on deeded land alone. These ranches employ workers, pay taxes and spend considerable funds locally on equipment, supplies and services.

Another set of benefits often overlooked by the general public is that these ranches provide critical “buffers” around forest and grassland areas. Ranches adjacent to public lands protect the scenic, open vistas treasured by recreational visitors. They also provide critical wildlife habitat. Many of the ranches that graze cattle on public lands are located in the lower valleys surrounding the more mountainous national forests. While the ranchers winter their cows on their private land, deer, elk and other wildlife migrate to the same areas, benefitting from improved water sources and forage supplies.

Access to seasonal grazing on public lands helps keep these ranches viable, as without it, many could not maintain enough animals year-around to sustain the ranch. When ranches are not economically sustainable, we’ve seen what happens – ranchers sell and developers move in. A ranch becomes a collection of 20-acre “ranchettes,” complete with buildings, fences, pavement and a few horses or cows continuously grazing each property down to the bare dirt. Wildlife habitat and migration corridors are gone, along with much of the scenery tourists and recreationists pay for.

Over time, loss of grazing rights on public lands could lead to national forests becoming islands surrounded by development, and that visitor satisfaction rate, which USDA lists as 94 percent satisfied, would decline.

So, next time you hear someone complain about public-lands grazing, explain to them that ranchers are some of the best friends our national forests and grasslands have.

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