In a recent interview with RFD-TV, Arizona Farm Bureau President Stefanie Smallhouse answered several questions about the relationship of our ranchers on public lands. Ultimately, our Arizona ranchers help maintain open space on private lands, provide generational knowledge of natural resources and management, encourage capital investments like water distribution for the benefit of livestock and wildlife and supply a large workforce to manage and care for the public trust without added expense to the taxpayer. And there’s more.
In ranching with her husband, Andy, in southern Arizona, Smallhouse is passionate about how we care for these public lands. Her extensive knowledge comes in handy when the public questions our use of public land for cattle grazing. Here’s the interview.
Many are not aware of how different land ownership is in Arizona from other states east of the Continental Divide. Give us a general sense of the lay of the land? Over 42% of Arizona is owned by the federal government; 27% of the land base is reserved for the 22 tribes, and 13% is held in trust by the State of Arizona to fund schools, hospitals and prisons. If you factor in some other various holdings, only about 17% of the land mass in Arizona is in private holdings.
Large amounts of public land owned by federal and state bodies are not unusual for western states, but in states like Iowa it’s only about .3% and Georgia 5%. And why land management in the west is quite different.
Of the land owned by the federal government only about 30% of it is available for non-tribal natural resource users.
So unlike in states where you have a majority of private lands for agriculture and farmers and ranchers can make most decisions independently of public input, this is not the case in Arizona, or the west in general. Ranching must undergo regular environmental analysis for permitting purposes and is highly susceptible to federal land management regulations, such as for endangered species, drought and competing uses.
Why are these public lands so important to Arizona ranchers? Nearly three-quarters of Arizona’s total land is managed by grazing. Over one-third of all ranches in Arizona include a mixture of two or more government owned lands within the ranch unit and another third consist solely of federal grazing lands. In Arizona, the beef industry contributes over $1 billion in economic output and is considered the economic base in six of Arizona’s fifteen counties.
What are the benefits to these lands, and the public in general, from raising livestock in these areas? Only about 16.5% of land in the U.S. is arable farmland and used in the production of food, feed and fiber crops. From the remaining undeveloped land, we must garner other food sources. Forty-seven percent of the western U.S. is owned by the federal government and produces cellulose, indigestible for humans. Cattle ranching is the highest and best use of those lands in assuring a complete and balanced food supply in the U.S.
The relationship between private lands and government owned or entrusted lands in the world of cattle ranching is an important public/private partnership. It maintains open space on private lands, provides generational knowledge of natural resources and management, encourages capital investments like water distribution for the benefit of livestockand wildlife and supplies a large workforce to manage and care for the public trust without added expense to the taxpayer.
It has been estimated by Steve Barker, a rangeland specialist in Arizona, that to replace the knowledge, expertise and labor force of the ranching community in Arizona alone would cost the taxpayer over $2 billion annually to provide the same level of on the ground management of public lands.
Economic development in many rural communities throughout Arizona and the greater West is limited to production industries such as agriculture.
During the pandemic this year, I'm sure these areas are seeing more activity. Is that what you are hearing from ranchers, and what impact does this have on the rancher and the resources? Yes, we are seeing a spike in activity on public lands and this is very likely due to folks just wanting to get out of the city with plenty of social distancing and fresh air. More folks in these areas increases the chances for fire, requires greater attention to road maintenance and just a general disruption to ranching activities due to gates left open and more activity around waters. Many of these folks have not been out to these areas before and we just ask that those visiting public lands, please be aware of your surroundings, plan ahead and be respectful of those who live and work on these lands every day - sometimes for generations.
Join Our Family
Ever Wonder How Ranchers Maintain Our Public Lands for Highest and Best Use