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The Death of
Rural Nevada

by  D. J. Alden and Steven Miller

Conventional wisdom within the Silver State’s media and political establishment has long assumed that the state’s city folks don’t really care about what’s going on out beyond the outskirts of Las Vegas and Reno. But an important new study suggests urban Nevadans are much more supportive of their cow-county compatriots than most observers ever suspected.

Yet the timing of this new report is almost bitterly ironic. The new information comes just as the federal destruction of the Silver State’s cow counties—a process already in motion for decades—is gaining powerful new momentum. In the following two articles, Nevada Journal explores both legs of this paradox.

I. Losing Ground

hey are called Nevada’s "cow counties"—Humbolt, Elko, Lander, Eureka, White Pine and Nye. Yet the fact is, the cows in those jurisdictions are disappearing. And as those cattle and livestock depart, so also departs the state’s rural tax base.

Actually, all the former mainstays of rural economies—mining, logging, livestock raising and agriculture—are losing ground. The reasons for the decline always vary a bit by locale, but nearly always the critical actor—or malefactor—in the decades-long drama has been the federal government.

Original Intent

ack when the United States was formed, the original intent of the Founding Fathers was to dispose of what we today call "federal lands." But in the last century an increasingly covetous national government has chosen to retain those lands and even—lately—secure more. Resisting efforts to privatize the land, the federal government followed a basically socialist model and resorted to command-and-control state bureaucracies, fueled by taxpayer money, to manage its Western holdings. Under the socialist model, however, no individual owns the land and no one with a direct interest in the welfare of the land bears responsibility for its care and management.

The result has been and continues to be federal mismanagement of the Western lands under politically driven agendas.

That mismanagement is now reaching a critical phase in the state of Nevada.

Grazing in the Silver State

he grazing ranges that cover Nevada’s chief cattle-raising counties have long been recognized as one of the prime range cow areas in the United States.

According to Dr. Tony Lesperance of Great Basin Resource Management in Elko, the sagebrush steppe that covers the region reliably produces—in its cool, usually moist, growing season—a multitude of bunch grasses. Then the following hot dry summer and fall normally cure the grass into forage very useable by livestock.

"Properly managed," says the former University of Nevada, Reno professor of animal and range science, "this resource has provided the necessary nutrition for hundreds of thousands of cattle for over 130 years."

Lesperance chronicled the economic decline of Nevada’s cowboy country in a 1995 study he called "Cowboys, Bureaucrats and the Long Rope of Justice." The paper, updated in 1998, chronicles the livestock numbers for the state and the cow counties for a quarter of a century. After reaching a modern-day high in 1982, notes Lesperance, cattle and calf numbers have fallen almost every year—and so drastically in the six cow counties that statewide numbers, too, have nose-dived. Thus on January 1, 1982, total cattle and calves in Nevada totaled 700,000. However by January 1, 1997, they had dropped to 520,000.

"The majority of the livestock losses," says Lesperance, "can be directly attributed to changes in management philosophy by the federal land management agencies, including the BLM and USFS. Changes in wilderness status, endangered species, wild horse management and more recently the use of new ‘proper use’ criteria all have contributed to this decline in the once healthy livestock industry."

The Hit to the County

very ranch animal, notes Lesperance, represents economic wealth not only to the ranch’s owner, but also to the county. When a ranch loses access to some of the forage that has allowed it to support its cows or horses or sheep, that loss of forage and resulting loss of animals not only constitutes an effective capital loss to the ranch, but also to the county where the ranch is part of the tax base.

Dr. Lesperance, basing his analysis on the total value represented by each cow—figuring in the attendant values of real estate, equipment, etc.—calculated the hit to the average ranch with the loss of an animal unit at around $2,325. The impact on the local county tax base figures out to be about half of that—$1,162.50.

Writing in 1995, when cattle and calves in Nevada’s six cow counties were down 135,000 from 1982, Lesperance said that figure would equate to about 101,250 animal units. Thus the lost tax base to the six rural cow counties in those 16 years, he wrote, could add up to as much as $118 million.

But that’s not the worst of it. Northern Nevada ranches spend on average $350 per cow per year, and the direct dollar impact of those lost cows quickly adds up.

"For 1983," he writes, "this value amounted to $2,170,000 and [had] increased to $27,615,000 for the year 1995."

But Lesperance points out there’s also the indirect effect of the lost ranch income:

"Every time a rancher directly purchases goods in the community, the community business is also able to make additional purchases. A recent university publication indicated for Humboldt County that the indirect impacts are approximately 1.32 times the direct impacts."

The Meaning of Lost Cows

or example, the indirect impact of 1983’s lost cows, calculated Lesperance, was $2,864,400, while in 1995 the impact was $36,451,800.

Totaling the direct and indirect dollar impact per year, and then summing up all of the years from 1983 through 1995, Lesperance puts the total economic impact of the decreasing cow numbers in Nevada’s six rural cow counties during that period at almost $521 million. Furthermore, because of the trends since 1983, he also predicts a continual loss to the counties of about 8,000 cows per year, or an additional $6.5 million annually.

The significance of all this in human terms is that in Nevada’s rurals an entire way of life is being destroyed.

A study by USA Today indicates that Nevada has three of the most rapidly declining counties in the United States—the rural counties of Esmeralda, Mineral and Eureka. Esmeralda has decreased in population over the last 10 years by 11.8 percent, Eureka by 8.7 percent and Mineral by 4.5 percent.

In Eureka County federal land agencies—the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service—have reduced grazing permits to a level where three-quarters of the county’s livestock has been lost during the last 15 years. The remaining 25 percent can no longer provide enough income to support residents, nor even the county’s infrastructure.

In Mineral County, like Lander, White Pine and Nye, the tax rate is now at the state maximum.

In each of these counties, the fact that there is nowhere to find more taxes to pay basic expenses means county officials have little alternative but to go to the state, hat in hand.

Effect on Urban Nevadans

hus the continued erosion of the tax base in the rural areas by federal land agency policies is going to hit urban Nevada right in the wallet. The consequences of misguided environmentalist dogmas implemented by federal bureaucracies are no longer going to be merely the problem of the ranchers, farmers and miners.

As the West’s rich and mythic way of life dies more and more in Nevada, say Lesperance and other close observers, it’s city dwellers who—one way or the other—will pick up the tab. Through tax money paid at the state or federal level, urban Nevadans will find themselves funding the buy-out of ranchers and the accelerating turnover of their land to the mismanaging government. The crumbling rural infrastructure—schools, government and health care—will be propped up by urbanites. Metropolitan Las Vegas and Reno will pay for the expansion of welfare and dependency in the rurals. And higher taxes aren’t the only new cost to city dwellers. Eventually, say observers, the loss of food producers will even force city dwellers’ food prices up.

Intense Problems
for Northern Nevada

he Northern Nevada economy, facing both a staggering decline in agriculture and always more restrictive environmentalist hurdles, appears likely to be hit hard.

While economic forecasts predict the southern part of the state will continue to grow, the stupendous decline in rural agriculture and mining is going to only add to the problems of Northern Nevada.

Already Comstock Bank’s economic survey shows the economy of Reno remaining in a no-growth stasis.

As the feds continue to squeeze Northern Nevada’s rural economy, the amount of agriculture-based commerce coming into Reno can only continue to shrink. Comstock Bank analysts have argued for years that without mining and agriculture as viable economic entities, the Washoe County economy must place a heavy reliance on gambling.

The Dance With the Devil

owever, now that Proposition 5 has passed in California, the prospects for gaming expansion in Washoe County look weak at best.

Ultimately, the prospect looms ever nearer of Nevada being divided into an economically healthy southern half (hopefully) and a dying northern half. But sooner or later the funeral expenses will be paid by those who can still pay taxes.

Nevada’s political establishment has for decades evaded any serious confrontation with the federal government over the latter’s smug depredations within the Silver State.

But any dance with the devil has its price.


II. The Hidden Consensus

homas Jefferson’s preferred vision for America was of a yeomen people whose liberty and wealth were sustained by the bounty they reaped working the land. In the United States this all came true—for a time. The American agricultural success story is one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of mankind. The prosperity made possible by self-sufficiency in food production allowed the Industrial Revolution to move forward in the United States. Political power and world dominance for the U.S. was due in significant part to agricultural self-sufficiency.

Over the years, however, the concentration of money, power and population in America’s urban coastal areas has paralleled economic decline in rural America. In the course of about a hundred years, urban America outgrew its country roots, losing at the same time a profound connection to the chain of nature which puts food on the table of half the world. Today, conventional political wisdom asserts that urban America—including urban Nevada—doesn’t care about the death of its rural areas. But a new study suggests that "wisdom" is emphatically wrong.

The Man Who Saw Through the Flak

e speaks with a west Texas drawl, belying his impressive academic credentials and staunch reliance on the scientific method. Dr. Hudson Glimp grew up in the west-central-Texas cow town of Burnet. Currently, when not doing research or teaching courses at the University of Nevada, Reno, he and his wife spend much of their time at the Rafter 7 Ranch south of Reno. Now a professor in the UNR School of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Glimp worked for the United States Department of Agriculture as director of more than 100,000 acres of federally administered land in Idaho.

It was then, he says, that he began to question the conventional wisdom regarding urban and rural attitudes toward federally administered lands. Dr. Glimp thinks received opinion is based on unscientific conjecture, pop-culture prejudices and political and special interest agendas. In his years as a director at the USDA, he relates, he was startled to find that many land use decisions were based on nothing more than assumptions. In countless meetings with various groups involved in forging land use policy, Glimp found he was essentially being told that urbanites believed federal land use should involve little more than non-use. Relying on inadequate scientific data and special interest agendas, the powers-that-be were assuming that the public either did not care about the use of Western federal lands or it absolutely trusted politicians and militant enviromentalist groups to oversee land use.

Eventually the veterinary medicine professor decided that a genuine scientific study was needed to see whether those presumptions were in fact true. Yet fearfully, many interest groups, including both ranching and environmental organizations, did not want him to do the study. But Glimp proceeded. With his university colleagues Lynn Huntsinger and Edwin Smith, Glimp designed one of the most unique and provocative studies ever done at the University of Nevada.

On a shoestring budget, they devised a survey titled "Nevada Public Lands and You: Urban vs. Rural Summary Survey of Nevada Citizens on the Uses, Management, and Decision Making Processes Related to Federal Lands in Nevada."

The team’s main goal was to find out how Nevada citizens think decisions on uses and management of Western lands currently controlled by federal agencies should be made. This included who should be involved and what kinds of local interests and local impacts should be considered. The results were a bombshell.

The Methodology Used

limp’s team drafted a questionnaire based on the well-respected and often-used Dillman survey approach, and settled details of exactly how the mails would be used. Pre-tested extensively in 1996, the sample frame used registered Nevada voters randomly picked from every county in the state. A mail survey was chosen to permit more in-depth questions than are possible in telephone surveys. Slightly more than 1,100 completed questionnaires were returned.

The response rate from urban counties Clark, Washoe, Carson, and Douglas was 48 percent. The rural response rate was somewhat higher at 58 percent. Most professionals classify a survey response rate of 35 percent or higher as excellent. Dr. Glimp believes the response rate was due to the high rate of concern in Nevada regarding federal land issues.

While federal land bureaucies pay lip service to the idea of public involvement in decisions about federal land, the reality is quite different. To the federal agencies involvement means that the bureaucrats develop alternatives for land use and the public is allowed to say which of the alternatives it likes. But in the end the agencies have final say and the public’s input in reality is to select among "choices" already made by the bureaucracies.

Glimp’s study indicates that Nevadans want another approach—one where the public is involved in the planning process as well. The survey shows a huge desire that policy decisions on the federal lands be made locally rather than in far-away Washington, D.C.

Only 26 percent of urban and 24 percent of rural respondents were satisfied with the current management of federal lands in Nevada. A majority of both urban and rural people would like to be more involved and do not feel well-informed about agency management of the lands—but they agree it is important to them.

Urban and rural residents strongly agreed that hiking, camping, bicycle riding, horseback riding, wildlife habitat, livestock grazing and fishing were appropriate uses of the federal lands.

Seventy-five percent of rural and sixty-eight percent of urban respondents agree that grazing is an appropriate use of federal land. However a majority was not aware that grazing on those lands had decreased significantly since the early 1980s.

In Clark County 95 percent of respondents believed the economic health of rural communities and families should be considered when land management decisions are made. Seventy-two percent believe that Nevada’s ranching heritage on federally administered lands is part of our history and should be protected.

Only 3 percent indicated we should only be concerned about protecting the land and not how land management decisions affect families and communities—or heritage values.

Sixty-eight percent of urban respondents think ranching makes a positive contribution to rural communities.

In Clark County 98 percent believe informed citizens should work together with federal agencies to make land management decisions.

And 75 percent think it is important that these land use decisions should be fair to the local people most directly affected.

In a state where 89 percent of the land mass is controlled by the federal government, it is illuminating that only 19 percent of respondents think the government should keep all the lands it administers and purchase even more.

Seventy-one percent believe that, excluding unique lands—parks, wildlife sanctuaries, wilderness areas, military bases, etc.—the federal government should give some land back to the states.

Forty-nine percent think that some federal lands should be sold to the public.

Of the various sources of federal lands information, elected officials have the lowest level of trust. Commodity, producer and—interestingly enough—environmental organizations also had low levels of trust.

Can the Politicans be Educated?

limp and his associates hope their study will be used to educate not only the public but also the politicians. With the prospect appearing remote that federal lands will be privatized or spun off to the states soon, the study concludes that the most viable alternative at present is proper land management. This, the public believes, should include continued livestock grazing on the federal lands.

In Glimp’s view, the radical environmental goal behind federal pressure to return land to a so-called "natural state" will simply mean non-use—which in turn would have consequences far more severe for the land than any over-grazing. The record shows that wildlife disappears in areas where ranchers aren’t allowed to improve marginal lands by developing the water resources that benefit wildlife as well as livestock. The former USDA director knows there is no way for the federal government to adequately care for the lands in its charge. It would take an army of public bureaucrats to do what a few responsible ranch and farm families have been doing for generations, he says.

Does urban Nevada understand any of this? The Glimp survey suggests that it does. City dwellers believe that ranching makes positive contributions, want locals to have input on federal land management decisions and are open to the devolution of federal land to the state and private individuals.

Is there any chance that Nevada’s urbanites can at last ride to the rescue of the cow counties? Under the steamroller of governmental arrogance and environmental extremism, Nevada’s cowboy country seems headed for history. Though a hidden consensus does exist between city dwellers and those on the Silver State’s range, its discovery may have come too late to help rural Nevada.   NJ

D. J. Alden is a contributing editor and Steven Miller is managing editor of Nevada Journal.

News to Use
Dr. Tony Lesperance
Fax: (702) 738-8561

Dr. Hudson Glimp

Comstock Bank Economic Survey

D. J. Alden

Steven Miller


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