Rangeland Policy and Management in a Changing West

Political Marginalization and a Crisis of Trust

Mark W. Brunson

On the night of July 4, 2018, an ill-advised Independence Day celebration ignited dry grass and shrubs in Martin Creek Canyon, 50 miles northeast of Winnemucca, Nevada. Six days later, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) satellites recorded that the Martin Fire, as it was now known, had grown to cover an area 57 miles long and 31 miles wide. It was the largest wildfire in the United States at the time, with 635 firefighters assigned to contain it. By August 2, 2018, when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) declared the fire fully contained, it had burned an estimated 435,500 acres, or a little more than 680 square miles, almost all of it public land. No one was hurt and no inhabited structures were lost, but local ranchers who held permits to use the land lost cattle as well as forage needed to sustain their surviving livestock. Rural businesses lost income owing to power outages when wildfire interrupted transmission lines and when tourists canceled planned visits because of the fire and smoke (Rothberg 2018).

Lightning-sparked wildfires have always been part of the western US landscape (Wright and Bailey 1982). But wildfires larger than 1,000 acres have increased in frequency, size, and date of occurrence across the western United States since 1984 (Dennison et al. 2014). In the region known as the Great Basin—which covers most of far northeastern California, southern Idaho, southeastern Oregon, Nevada, and western Utah—these changes pose a threat to rangeland ecosystem health and human values. Because most Great Basin rangeland is owned and managed by the federal government, addressing the challenge of wildfire has become one of the region’s most pressing and vexing public land policy challenges.

On a national scale, however, this challenge remains largely invisible. In the days that the Martin Fire was the nation’s largest, covering an area more than half the size of the state of Rhode Island, it drew little national attention. No news of the huge blaze appeared in nationally circulated newspapers such as the New York Times, Washington Post, or USA Today. Although rangelands occur from Alaska to Florida, covering 761 million acres, or about 31% of the total US land area (Havstad et al. 2009), rangeland issues and events rarely penetrate the national consciousness.

This relative lack of visibility is reflected in federal policies that fail to account for rangeland contexts. In late August 2018 the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) denied the state of Nevada’s request for a Fire Management Assistance Grant for recovery from the Martin Fire because it “did not threaten such destruction as would constitute a major disaster” (Spillman 2018). It is difficult for rangeland wildfires to qualify for federal assistance because they rarely meet the criterion of posing threats to large numbers of homes or improved property. More than 1,600 square miles of rangeland burned across all of Nevada in 2018, yet little help was available for businesses or individuals harmed by wildfire. By federal statute, those losses were not important enough to constitute “emergencies.”

The lack of attention paid to rangeland issues exemplifies what Reynolds et al. (2007) called the “Dryland Development Paradigm.” Seeking to explain why global desertification is a social issue as well as an environmental problem, the authors identified a “dryland syndrome” that explains why rangelands may be especially vulnerable to environmental shocks as well as social upheaval. Arid, semiarid, and dry subhumid landscapes not only receive less precipitation than other regions, but also the precipitation they do receive is more variable and less predictable. Soil fertility is often low, and soils are easily damaged by tillage. Human populations are sparser, more remote from markets, and more distant from the centers and priorities of decision makers (Reynolds et al. 2007). Not coincidentally, dryland (i.e., rangeland) populations are said to be among the most ecologically, socially, and politically marginalized populations on Earth (Khagram et al. 2003). While residents of rangeland regions in the highly developed United States are less vulnerable than others across the globe, their concerns nonetheless can be marginalized relative to their fellow citizens elsewhere. Accordingly, rangeland issues and concerns tend to gain less political attention, and policy interventions aimed at other regions can have unintended consequences for rangeland management.

This chapter explores historical factors that underlie the current situation of federal rangelands, as well as some major challenges facing rangeland management on those lands, especially but not limited to those influenced by climate change. These include environmentally detrimental land uses such as energy production and unregulated off-highway vehicle use, nonnative species invasions and their influence on wildfires and habitat loss, and disputes over grazing rights and local control of federal lands. I argue that factors of political and social marginalization tend to exacerbate those challenges, and current environmental politics and policies are not designed to mitigate them.

Rangelands in the United States

Geography and History

Rangeland is a name given to lands managed primarily to maintain natural conditions, where vegetation is dominated by grasses, grasslike plants, forbs, or shrubs. Because they occur in arid and semiarid climates, rangelands are characterized by limited water and nutrients and low annual biomass production (Havstad et al. 2009). This definition, while seemingly narrow in scope, nonetheless encompasses a wide variety of landscapes, including shrublands, deserts, tundra, most wetlands, and some grasslands. Despite low biological productivity, rangelands have long been occupied by humans who depended upon them to provide forage for domestic livestock, habitat for wild game, and sources of edible wild plants. More recently, rangelands have also been recognized for their value as watersheds for rural and urban uses; sources of renewable and nonrenewable energy resources and minerals; settings for recreation activities; and habitat for diverse plants, insects, and animals.

Despite their contributions to lives and livelihoods, US rangelands historically have been considered less important or valuable than other land types. After Thomas Jefferson dispatched teams of explorers to learn about his newly acquired Louisiana Purchase, expedition mapmaker Edwin James reported that the region “is almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course, uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence. Although tracts of fertile land considerably extensive are occasionally to be met with, yet the scarcity of wood and water, almost uniformly prevalent, will prove an insuperable obstacle in the way of settling the country” (Meinig 1993, p. 76).

Soon pioneer settlers learned how to turn what James labeled as the “Great American Desert” into cropland. Thanks to the stimulus of the various Homestead Acts passed between 1862 and 1916, 1.6 million settlers acquired ownership of more than 270 million acres of what was previously government-held land (Porterfield 2004). Most of that acreage lay west of the Mississippi River, and most of it was rangeland. A stipulation of the Homestead Act was that the land had to be “improved”—which generally meant farming it, often with the aid of irrigation—and occupied for five years. This process continued through the end of the nineteenth century, and in Alaska well into the twentieth century, with homesteading theoretically still possible until the act was repealed with passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA) (Fischman et al. 2014).

As the homesteading era ended, much of the federal estate remained unsettled because it was too dry, too cold, too rocky, or too marshy to serve as farmland or townsites. Of the unclaimed lands, those that held special scenic, recreational, scientific, or environmental value became the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, while outstanding wildlife habitats were the domain of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The US Forest Service (USFS) was created to reserve lands that could serve as reliable sources of timber and water. Some of what remained was ultimately turned over to the Department of Defense for military training and testing purposes; the rest fell under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), created in 1946 to administer the land primarily for livestock grazing, minerals extraction, and land transfers (Fischman et al. 2014). With passage of FLPMA thirty years later, the BLM shares with the Forest Service a legal mandate to manage the land for multiple uses. About 167 million acres of the BLM estate and 95 million acres of national forest are considered rangeland. Today, the states with the greatest proportion of land area in federal ownership are dominated by rangeland, while the states where rangeland was largely converted to cropland have some of the smallest proportions of federal land (table 3.1).

The Societal Context of Federal Rangelands

Upon settlement of the western range, towns and cities began to arise in the most hospitable locations, typically where streams provided reliable water sources. Rangeland cities such as Albuquerque, Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City attracted commerce and, of course, people. Later, scenic rangeland areas became home to those who settled in smaller cities like Bend, Boise, Idaho Falls, or St. George for the dry climate and access to outdoor recreation and other amenities. In recent decades the fastest-growing states have tended to be those with large expanses of federal rangeland. While the US population as a whole has grown by 31% since 1990, the population of Arizona has grown by 94%, Colorado by 73%, Idaho by 74%, Utah by 80%, and Nevada by an astounding 254% (US Census Bureau 2018).

Table 3.1. Proportions of Rangeland-Dominated States in Federal Ownership

States Percentage That Is Rangeland
Western States
Arizona 38.6%
California 45.8%
Colorado 35.9%
Idaho 61.6%
Montana 29.0%
Nevada 84.9%
New Mexico 34.7%
Oregon 52.9%
Utah 64.9%
Washington 28.5%
Wyoming 48.1%
Prairie States
Iowa 0.3%
Kansas 0.5%
Nebraska 1.1%
North Dakota 3.6%
Oklahoma 1.6%
South Dakota 1.8%
US Total 27.4%

Source: Vincent et al. (2017)

Despite this growth, the political importance of rangeland states has not grown proportionately. Excluding California, which has extensive tracts of rangeland in the eastern half of the state, the eight states of the Lower 48 with significant proportions of federal rangeland (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming) account for 49 of the 538 electoral college votes, a bit more than 9%. Students at the nation’s most elite academic institutions, which supply a disproportionate number of federal policymakers (Parmar 2008), rarely come from the interior western states (3.3% of the graduating class of 2021 at Harvard, 3.7% at Yale, and 3.0% at Princeton). Accordingly, it is less likely that decision makers will understand rangeland issues, or that those issues will gain prominence in nationwide political debates. Although California may seem like an exception, political trends within that state mirror those of the nation as a whole, sparking a secession movement in rural far northern and northeastern California endorsed by officials and residents of twenty-one counties who argue that locally important issues are ignored in a state where the policy debate is dominated by urban coastal politicians and concerns (Branson-Potts 2018).

Not all rangelands are in public ownership. Because the grasslands of the Great Plains proved fertile when irrigated, millions of acres of rangeland were plowed to grow grain crops and cotton. Millions more acres in those same states are managed as private pasturelands. When large numbers of farms failed during the Dust Bowl era of the 1920s and 1930s, the government reacquired some lands in the western Great Plains that eventually were designated as national grasslands managed by the US Forest Service (Duram 1995); however, these lands remain a small component of the federal estate.

Just as conversion to farmland added value to rangelands in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, so have other land-use conversions today. As urban populations have grown, vast expanses of privately owned rangeland have been converted to residential use in the sprawling suburbs of Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and the cities of California. This urbanization, combined with the sparse settlement of rural areas in those states, has meant there are more metropolitan residents in the rangeland states of Arizona (94%), Nevada (90%), Oregon (91%), Utah (87%), and Washington (89%) than in the United States as a whole (86%) (US Census Bureau 2018). Over time the interests of those metropolitan areas likewise have diverged from those of their rural neighbors, causing marginalization at the state level as well.

Challenges for Federal Rangeland Management and Policy

Land Uses and Impacts

Grazing management. Livestock grazing has long been a predominant use of public rangelands. Prior to passage of the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934, oversight of cattle and sheep grazing was virtually nonexistent, and overgrazing was a significant source of degradation and desertification (Kassas 1995). Even after the creation of the Bureau of Land Management twelve years later, livestock grazing had such primacy that the agency was sometimes derisively referred to as the Bureau of Livestock and Mining (Bradley and Ingram 1986). Over time, a system has emerged whereby the BLM issues leases and permits to ranchers who are bound by terms and conditions that specify when forage can be used, how many animals can graze in an allotment, how water and fence improvements must be maintained, and how to accommodate permitted uses. Permittees are charged a fee set annually under a formula established by Congress in 1986. The fee typically ranges between $1.35 and $2.00 per animal unit month, that is, the amount of forage that can be consumed by a cow-calf pair, a horse, or five sheep or goats in a month. The actual amount of grazing that occurs in a given year may be less than what is permitted depending on factors such as wildfire, drought, or market conditions. Leases cover a ten-year period and are renewable subject to an environmental assessment conducted under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). As of October 2018, the BLM administers nearly 18,000 permits, mainly for cattle or sheep grazing, on more than 21,000 allotments, while the US Forest Service administers nearly 6,000 permits on national forests and grasslands. Some units of the National Park Service and US Fish and Wildlife Service also allow grazing, either to meet resource management objectives or to accommodate “grandfathered” uses that had been in existence prior to designation of a particular refuge or park unit.

The policy challenge for public land livestock grazing is balancing local economic benefits and cultural traditions with potential environmental costs on lands held in trust for all citizens. Environmental impacts can vary greatly depending on how carefully an allotment is managed or monitored, and upon environmental conditions affected by climate as well as vegetation type. In some places the ecological cost can be significant, especially in riparian areas along rangeland streams (Armour et al. 1994; Fleischner 1994). But impacts of overgrazing on federal land have decreased thanks to scientific grazing management principles drawn from a century of rangeland research (Sayre 2017). Restoration efforts increasingly are implemented on federal lands, albeit with mixed success (Pilliod et al. 2017; Pyke et al. 2015). Environmental activists often argue that the only solution to degradation is to remove cattle from the public range (Donahue 1999; Molvar 2018), but on lands historically grazed by large herbivores the removal of cattle can lead to significant problems as well, including loss of biodiversity and increased wildfire intensity (Papanastasis 2009). Accordingly, federal agencies instead seek to carefully regulate stocking levels, seasons of use, and intensity of grazing by livestock.

The effects of climate change on livestock use of federal rangelands are not yet well understood. Climate projections predict warmer, drier conditions in the southern Great Plains and Southwest, warmer and wetter conditions in the northern Great Plains, and warmer winters and summers in the Northwest and Great Basin with reduced snowpack (Briske et al. 2015). Vegetation changes including loss of forage due to climate change have already been observed in southern Arizona and New Mexico (Brown et al. 1997). In the public lands-dominated Southwest (including Arizona, Southern California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah), animal agriculture accounts for about one-third of total agricultural revenue (USDA National Agricultural Statistics Survey data; see Havstad et al. 2018), creating great pressure to maintain such uses, yet these lands can expect longer and more severe droughts in future decades.

Wildfire and invasive species. Wildfires pose many challenges for federal rangelands. Fires are growing larger, with few years that don’t see at least one rangeland fire greater than 100,000 acres in size (Scasta et al. 2016). Financial costs of wildfire management also are skyrocketing, placing ever-increasing strain on agency budgets (Hand et al. 2016). Wildland fire suppression costs for the Forest Service alone topped $2.5 billion in 2017, forcing the agency to use millions of dollars that had been allocated to other programs. Congress addressed the fire funding issue in 2018 by a creating a fire suppression account that the Forest Service can draw upon according to each year’s need (US Department of Agriculture 2018), but the effects of this change are not yet known.

Exacerbating the problem is the spread of invasive annual cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), which now is pervasive across the western portion of the US rangeland region. Cheatgrass expansion has been linked to major increases in fire frequency (Balch et al. 2013; Bradley et al. 2018), as well as habitat degradation for wildlife species (Pyke et al. 2015; Wisdom and Chambers 2009). Nonnative species invasions pose enormous economic and environmental costs nationwide (Pimentel et al. 2005), and public rangelands are no exception. DiTomaso (2000) estimated that more than three hundred nonnative weed species had become established on rangelands. Policy fixes have largely involved efforts to prevent weed introduction (e.g., regulations requiring backcountry horse outfitters to use certified weed-free feed) as well as supporting research and development of biological control options.

There are clear connections between the increase in large wildfires in western rangelands, spread of invasive annual grasses, and climate change. Climate scientists predict that the potential for large fires will grow throughout the West (Barbero et al. 2015). Indeed, climate change is already changing rangeland ecosystems. Since 1985 the high deserts of the Great Basin and Columbia Plateau have warmed by as much as 1.4°C, and temperatures are predicted to continue increasing, especially in winter and at night (Snyder et al. 2019). Wildfire seasons likely will come earlier in the year and last longer, likely increasing the total rangeland acreage burned annually. Data from Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Wyoming demonstrate that the worst conditions come when a hot, dry year follows a wetter year (Scasta et al. 2016), such as was experienced in Nevada and the Great Basin in 2018.

Wild horses and burros. One of the most vexing challenges for public rangelands is the management of wild horses and burros. Horses and burros were introduced to the North American continent by Spanish explorers and missionaries beginning in the 1500s, and escapees soon established free-roaming herds on western rangelands. Responding to public concern about mistreatment and exploitation of wild horse herds, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act in 1971 to protect wild equids on BLM and Forest Service land. Agencies designated horse management areas (HMAs) and set appropriate management levels (AMLs) of horses or burros that could be sustainably maintained on each HMA. As of March 1, 2018, wild horse and burro populations on BLM lands exceeded AML in nine of the ten states where they are found. Overall, the agency estimated that 81,951 horses and burros ranged on BLM land, whereas the AML was calculated at 26,690 (Bureau of Land Management 2018). Overpopulation causes considerable damage to vegetation and soils, as well as to seeps and springs important for other rangeland wildlife (Davies et al. 2014). Climate change is likely to exacerbate those impacts as droughts become more frequent and water scarcer owing to diminished winter snowpack. Because federal law prohibits lethal control of horses except where euthanization is needed for animal welfare purposes, the primary management tool is periodic roundups. Private citizens may adopt wild horses under certain conditions, but most “surplus” animals are shipped after capture to BLM-leased pastures on private lands. As of this writing, there were more than 45,000 horses and burros in BLM holding facilities, where caring for the animals costs nearly $50 million annually (Frey and Thacker 2018).

Energy development. Among potentially damaging land uses, energy development often draws public attention. US energy production is increasing, much of it coming from private rangelands. Meanwhile, oil and gas production on federal lands has increased by 60% over the past decade, and 90% of BLM land is open to oil and gas leasing and development. Between 2009 and 2016, bids were received for new leases on eight million acres of BLM land, although only about half of those acres are in production (Center for Western Priorities 2017). The highly visible footprint of energy production includes not only well pads but also roads and pipelines, which can fragment wildlife habitats (Brittingham et al. 2014). Among renewable energy sources, wind and biofuels production from rangelands is centered on private lands of the Great Plains, but US solar energy potential is greatest in Arizona, southeastern California, southern Nevada, and New Mexico, where sites on federal land have been developed or are under consideration. Most utility-scale solar installations occur on shrublands and deserts, often near protected areas, leading to land cover changes that can negatively affect the ability of those lands to support native plants and wildlife (Hernandez et al. 2015).

The climate change impacts on energy production occurring on public land are largely unknown. Unconventional fossil fuel development, especially natural gas production using hydraulic fracturing, requires large amounts of water (Kreuter et al. 2016), which could be in more limited supply owing to climate change. Knowledge is limited about how to restore rangeland energy production zones after production ceases, and the eventuality of climate change only increases that uncertainty (Winkler et al. 2018).

Motorized recreation. Another rangeland use posing challenges for federal land policy and management is off-highway vehicle recreation. Both the BLM and Forest Service have expressed concern about the increase in this use and its impacts (Cordell et al. 2005). Cordell also estimated that 18.6% of Americans age sixteen or older participated in off-highway vehicle recreation in 1999-2004. While most activity occurs on designated trails and improved gravel roads, there also is considerable overland use, with potential impacts to soils, vegetation, and wildlife (Ouren et al. 2007). Federal land managers in recent years have paid more attention to off-highway vehicle management, creating new designated-use areas while closing the most vulnerable environments. Research suggests that these efforts may be having desired effects on reducing the negative impacts of this form of recreation (Custer et al. 2017). As with energy production, climate change is more likely to affect efforts to restore landscapes degraded by off-highway vehicles, although use itself may decline owing to more frequent extreme weather events (Evans 2019) as well as potential higher expenses if climate mitigation policies are adopted that increase the cost of fuel.

Policy Disputes over Rangeland Uses

Despite a history of being largely unwanted, federal rangelands have values that increasingly are being recognized (Brunson 2014; Havstad et al. 2007). With growing recognition of rangeland values comes greater competition among stakeholders. Should livestock grazing be the predominant use of federal rangelands, as was the case in the twentieth century, or should policies shift to favor amenity uses and biodiversity protection? How should federal policy address the growing demand to use public lands for both renewable and nonrenewable energy production? How should federal land management address environmental changes due to climate change, wildfire, and nonnative invasive species? And whose interests should be best served on rangelands that are held in trust for all Americans but are most heavily enjoyed and depended upon by local residents?

For decades, federal rangeland policy was largely directed by a small circle of ranchers, agency specialists, and western members of Congress (Dana and Fairfax 1980). As attention to environmental impacts grew nationwide in the 1960s and 1970s, rangeland issues remained a low priority as activists focused on national forest timber harvest, air and water pollution, and wilderness protection. By the 1990s, however, some activists had turned their attention to public rangelands in a movement they called “Cattle Free by ’93” (Starrs 1994). In the first (and thus far only) effort to determine how Americans as a whole view the management of publicly owned rangelands, Brunson and Steel (1994, 1996) conducted three parallel surveys: telephone surveys of Oregon residents and nationwide, and a mail survey of residents in seventeen Oregon counties where livestock grazing is a traditional and economically important land use. They found that attitudes generally were rooted in a limited understanding of rangelands and their management, especially among national and urban Oregon respondents. A clear dichotomy existed between attitudes of rural westerners and those of urban and suburban residents. Urban residents were more likely to support preservationist approaches to range management and less likely to support the multiple-use approach enshrined in federal law. Moreover, this dichotomy was most pronounced among respondents from urban parts of the West. Similar rural-urban differences have been found in subsequent surveys in parts of the Great Basin (Gordon et al. 2014; Shindler et al. 2011).

The urban-rural divide is exemplified in disputes about wild horses and burros. The fate of wild horses is of interest to a diverse range of stakeholders, including horse advocates and animal rights organizations on one side, and ranchers, hunters, and some environmental groups on the other. Scientific evidence suggests that horse populations are far above carrying capacity, with significant negative environmental costs as well as costs to horse health and survival (Davies et al. 2014). Yet members of the general public view the horse issue through a different lens, shaped by deep-seated and positive cultural norms regarding horses as a species, as well as distrust of land managers (Beever et al. 2018). The benefits of knowing that horses can roam free on public lands accrue mainly to these citizens, most of whom are urban residents, while the negative impacts are borne largely by rural residents as well as by the rangelands themselves.

In the absence of nationwide interest in or knowledge about rangeland issues, both among the public and by policymakers, current debates about the future of federal rangelands largely reflect the divergent concerns of urban and rural westerners. Political marginalization remains a factor even when the debate shifts from the national to regional scales. But debates over federal policy typically cannot be resolved at the regional level because they require acts of Congress. Instead, efforts to influence rangeland policy typically follow one of three paths. First, decisions may be made within federal bureaucracies. Especially in the Department of Interior, appointees to high-level positions typically are elected officials in the president’s party from western states. In the absence of strong interest from Congress or presidential administrations, decisions about rangeland policy and management are often made at the cabinet department level (Davis 2001). An inevitable result is that when a new political party ascends to the White House, decisions made at the cabinet level usually reverse previous decisions by appointees of the opposing party, creating a whiplash effect that can infuriate rural westerners whose livelihoods depend on rangelands.

Second, debates can occur at the state level. In recent years, such debates have led—especially in interior western states—to increasing calls by conservative-leaning legislatures and governors for transfer of federal lands to state control (Wayland et al. 2018). State officials argue that because the Constitution does not mention public lands—indeed, the nation’s founders could not have imagined the need for government administration of lands unsuited for farming or commercial development—the administration of such lands must be left to the states as stipulated in the Tenth Amendment. They also argue that because states are closer to the land itself, they are more capable of managing the land effectively. Conversely, opponents of federal-to-state land transfers argue that the federal government is in a better financial position to manage the land—especially when fire suppression can cost half of an agency’s budget—and that states will be forced to sell off land to meet budgetary needs, cutting off the public’s access.

Finally, citizens displeased by the policy outcomes in Washington, DC, and state capitals turn to the courts to try to block policy decisions. In conservative states such as Utah or Idaho where one party dominates legislative politics, the voices of those who oppose extractive and commodity uses of public lands are disenfranchised. Groups like the Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project have been active in initiating legal action to block decisions on rangelands they see as intended to sustain livestock grazing on public lands. Yet, unlike in the case of federal timber harvest, such efforts so far have been largely ineffective in dislodging the entrenched system of grazing permits that has existed since the mid-twentieth century (Wood 2006).

Underlying all three of these policy paths is a gradual but pervasive dissolution of trust in natural resource management institutions (Stern and Baird 2015). Trust in all manner of authoritative institutions has been declining in the early twenty-first century (Tyler 2016), but especially in institutions of the federal government (Cooper 2018). When trust in rangeland management agencies decreases, so do positive attitudes toward the policies and practices of those agencies. Gordon et al. (2014) compared beliefs about the acceptability of fuels management practices on public rangelands among Great Basin respondents surveyed in 2006 and again in 2010, finding that by far the best predictor of change in beliefs was trust in agencies’ ability to safely and effectively implement the practices. Trust levels rose among urban populations while declining among rural residents, possibly owing to the political shift that occurred when the Republican administration of George W. Bush was replaced by the Democratic administration of Barack Obama.

Conclusions and Implications

Reynolds et al. (2007) proposed that rangelands and their residents are marginalized within larger national contexts because rangelands tend to be less biologically and economically productive, and their human populations sparser and remote from political power centers. While the Dryland Development Paradigm was applied to developing nations, similar phenomena play out in policy disputes over federal rangelands. Resource uses often accrue benefits to persons living in urban areas far from the western range, whether those benefits are largely economic as in the case of energy development, or appreciative and symbolic as in the case of wild horse and burro management. In turn, residents of western rangeland regions can become disaffected by the perception of marginalization, leading to increasingly rancorous disputes as well as efforts to wrest control of rangelands from Washington, DC, through various means. The question remains: Can policy mechanisms reduce marginalization by empowering local interests, without sacrificing the general public’s interests in land held in trust for all Americans?

The answer may lie in policies that encourage localized flexibility in solutions to rangeland challenges while maintaining federal control over the lands themselves. Proposed methods for ameliorating the challenges to federal rangeland management require the improved use of social-ecological systems frameworks (Bestelmeyer and Briske 2012; Brunson 2012; Hruska et al. 2017). Such approaches employ scientific analysis, stakeholder engagement, and agency expertise to focus on how social and political components of ecosystems interact with ecological components at multiple scales. Institutional flexibility, as opposed to rigid laws and policies applied uniformly across the nation, can promote adaptive management and foster resilience (Charnley et al. 2018). Because loss of trust underlies many disputes over federal rangelands, resilient policy mechanisms are needed that can maintain or even build trust (Stern and Baird 2015). Participatory approaches to problem solving and knowledge sharing, which build trust through frequent social interaction and mutual respect, are more likely to support sustainability and system resilience (Charnley et al. 2018).

This is especially important as rangelands are increasingly affected by climate change. Havstad et al. (2018) argue that creative livestock grazing strategies—for example, shifting to more drought-adapted breeds of cattle—may be feasible to adapt to climate change in the Southwest, but this can occur only through carefully applied adaptive management. Because impacts of climate change are likely to differ geographically, it is unlikely that national-scale policies can effectively facilitate the sort of varied adaptation strategies that can accommodate the needs and capacities of livestock operators (Briske et al. 2015). Such strategies must also consider geographically varying social contexts, such as the degree to which ranchers can find alternative forage from nonfederal sources, as well as pressure to use grazed lands for recreation and other appreciative activities. Similar approaches may be feasible for addressing disputes over other land uses. Such efforts are novel, and likely many will fail or fall short of expectations, but it is clear that traditional policies have not been able to address the growing challenges confronting the management of western public rangelands.


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The Environmental Politics and Policy of Western Public Lands Copyright © 2020 by Mark W. Brunson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.