On the Range
excerpted from the book
Fast Food Nation
by Eric Schlosser
Perennial Books, 2002, paper
Hank was the first person I met in Colorado Springs. He was a
prominent local rancher, and I'd called him to learn how development
pressures and the dictates of the fast food industry were affecting
the area's cattle business. In July of 1997, he offered to give
me a tour of the new subdivisions that were rising on land where
cattle once roamed. We met in the lobby of my hotel. Hank was
forty-two years old and handsome enough to be a Hollywood cowboy,
tall and rugged, wearing blue jeans, old boots, and a big white
hat. But the Dodge minivan he drove didn't quite go with that
image, and he was too smart to fit any stereotype. Hank proved
to be good company from the first handshake. He had strong opinions,
but didn't take himself too seriously. We spent hours driving
around Colorado Springs, looking at how the New West was burying
As we drove through neighborhoods like
Broadmoor Oaks and Broadmoor Bluffs, amid the foothills of Cheyenne
Mountain, Hank pointed out that all these big new houses on small
lots sat on land that every few generations burned. The houses
were surrounded by lovely pale brown grasses, tumbleweed, and
scrub oak-ideal kindling. As in southern California, these hillsides
could erupt in flames with the slightest spark, a cigarette tossed
from a car window. The homes looked solid and prosperous, gave
no hint of their vulnerability, and had wonderful views.
Hank's ranch was about twenty miles south
of town. As we headed there, the landscape opened up and began
to show glimpses of the true West-the wide-open countryside that
draws its beauty from the absence of people, attracts people,
and then slowly loses its appeal. Through leadership positions
in a variety of local and statewide groups, Hank was trying to
bridge the gap between ranchers and environmentalists, to establish
some common ground between longtime enemies. He was not a wealthy,
New Age type playing at being a cowboy. His income came from the
roughly four hundred head of cattle on his ranch. He didn't care
what was politically correct and had little patience for urban
environmentalists who vilified the cattle industry. In his view,
good ranchers did far less damage to the land than city-dwellers.
"Nature isn't an abstraction for me," he said. "My
family lives with it every day."
When we got to the ranch, Hank's wife,
Susan, was leading her horse out of a ring. She was blond and
attractive, but no pushover: tall, fit, and strong. Their daughters,
Allie and Kris, aged six and eight, ran over to greet us, full
of excitement that their dad was home and had brought a visitor.
They scrambled into the minivan and joined us for a drive around
the property. Hank wanted me to see the difference between his
form of ranching and "raping the land." As we took off
onto a dirt road, I looked back at his house and thought about
how small it looked amid this landscape. On acreage hundreds if
not thousands of times larger than the front lawns and back yards
surrounding the mansions of Colorado Springs, the family lived
in a modest log cabin.
Hank was practicing a form of range management
inspired by the grazing patterns of elk and buffalo herds, animals
who'd lived for millennia on this short-grass prairie. His ranch
was divided into thirty-five separate pastures. His cattle spent
ten or eleven days in one pasture, then were moved to the next,
allowing the native plants, the blue grama and buffalo grass,
time to recover. Hank stopped the minivan to show me a nearby
stream. On land that has been overgrazed, the stream banks are
usually destroyed first, as cattle gather in the cool shade beside
the water, eating everything in sight. Hank's stream was fenced
off with barbed wire, and the banks were lush and green. Then
he took me to see Fountain Creek, which ran straight through the
ranch, and I realized that he'd given other guests the same tour.
It had a proper sequence and a point.
Fountain Creek was a long, ugly gash about
twenty yards wide and fifteen feet deep. The banks were collapsing
from erosion, fallen trees and branches littered the creek bed,
and a small trickle of water ran down the middle. "This was
done by storm runoff from Colorado Springs," Hank said. The
contrast between his impact on the land and the city's impact
was hard to miss. The rapid growth of Colorado Springs had occurred
without much official planning, zoning, or spending on drainage
projects. As more pavement covered land within the city limits,
more water flowed straight into Fountain Creek instead of being
absorbed into the ground. The runoff from Colorado Springs eroded
the land beside the creek, carrying silt and debris downstream
all the way to Kansas. Hank literally lost part of his ranch every
year. It got washed away by the city's rainwater. A nearby rancher
once lost ten acres of land in a single day, thanks to runoff
from a fierce storm in Colorado Springs. While Hank stood on the
crumbling bank, giving an impassioned speech about the watershed
protection group that he'd helped to organize, telling me about
holding ponds, landscaped greenways, and the virtues of permeable
parking lots covered in gravel, I lost track of his words. And
I thought: "This guy's going to be governor of Colorado someday."
Toward sunset we spotted a herd of antelope
and roared after them. That damn minivan bounced over the prairie
like a horse at full gallop, Hank wild behind the wheel, Allie
and Kris squealing in the back seat. We had a Chrysler engine,
power steering, and disk brakes, but the antelope had a much superior
grace, making sharp and unexpected turns, about two dozen of them,
bounding effortlessly, butts held high. After a futile chase,
Hank let the herd go on its way, then veered right and guided
the minivan up a low hill. There was something else he wanted
to show me. The girls looked intently out the window, faces flushed,
searching for more wildlife. When we reached the crest of the
hill, I looked down and saw an immense oval structure, shiny and
brand-new. For an instant, I couldn't figure out what it was.
It looked like a structure created by some alien civilization
and plopped in the middle of nowhere. "Stock car racing,"
Hank said matter-of-factly. The grandstands around the track were
enormous, and so was the parking lot. Acres of black asphalt and
white lines now spread across the prairie, thousands of empty
spaces waiting for cars.
The speedway was new, and races were being
held there every weekend in the summer. You could hear the engines
and the crowd from Hank's house. The races weren't the main problem,
though. It was the practice runs that bothered Hank and Susan
most. In the middle of the day, in one of America's most beautiful
landscapes, they would suddenly hear the drone of stock cars going
round and round. For a moment, we sat quietly on top of the hill,
staring at the speedway bathed in twilight, at this oval strip
of pavement, this unsettling omen. Hank stopped there long enough
for me to ponder what it meant, the threat now coming his way,
then drove back down the hill. The speedway was gone again, out
of sight, and the girls were still happy in the back seat, chatting
away, oblivious, as the sun dropped behind the mountains.
Ranchers and cowboys have long been the central icons of the American
West. Traditionalists have revered them as symbols of freedom
and self-reliance. Revisionists have condemned them as racists,
economic parasites, and despoilers of the land. The powerful feelings
evoked by cattlemen reflect opposing views of our national identity,
attempts to sustain old myths or create new ones. There is one
indisputable fact, however, about American ranchers: they are
rapidly disappearing. Over the last twenty years, about half a
million ranchers sold off their cattle and quit the business.
Many of the nation's remaining eight hundred thousand ranchers
are faring poorly. They're taking second jobs. They're selling
cattle at break-even prices or at a loss. The ranchers who are
faring the worst run three to four hundred head of cattle, manage
the ranch themselves, and live solely off the proceeds. The sort
of hard-working ranchers long idealized in cowboy myths are the
ones most likely to go broke today. Without receiving a fraction
of the public attention given to the northwestern spotted owl,
America's independent cattlemen have truly become an endangered
Ranchers currently face a host of economic
problems: rising land prices, stagnant beef prices, oversupplies
of cattle, increased shipments of live cattle from Canada and
Mexico, development pressures, inheritance taxes, health scares
about beef On top of all that, the growth of the fast food chains
has encouraged consolidation in the meatpacking industry. McDonald's
is the nation's largest purchaser of beef. In 1968, McDonald's
bought ground beef from 175 local suppliers. A few years later,
seeking to achieve greater product uniformity as it expanded,
McDonald's reduced the number of beef suppliers to five. Much
like the french fry industry, the meatpacking industry has been
transformed by mergers and acquisitions over the last twenty years.
Many ranchers now argue that a few large corporations have gained
a stranglehold on the market, using unfair tactics to drive down
the price of cattle. Anger toward the large meatpackers is growing,
and a new range war threatens to erupt, one that will determine
the social and economic structure of the rural West.
A century ago, American ranchers found
themselves in a similar predicament. The leading sectors of the
nation's economy were controlled by corporate alliances known
as "trusts." There was a Sugar Trust, a Steel Trust,
a Tobacco Trust-and a Beef Trust. It set the prices offered for
cattle. Ranchers who spoke out against this monopoly power were
often blackballed, unable to sell their cattle at any price. In
1917, at the height of the Beef Trust, the five largest meatpacking
companies-Armour, Swift, Morris, Wilson, and Cudahy- controlled
about 55 percent of the market. The early twentieth century had
trusts, but it also had "trustbusters," progressive
government officials who believed that concentrated economic power
posed a grave threat to American democracy. The Sherman Antitrust
Act had been passed in 1890 after a congressional investigation
of price fixing in the meatpacking industry, and for the next
two decades the federal government tried to break up the Beef
Trust, with little success. In 1917 President Woodrow Wilson ordered
the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the industry. The
FTC inquiry concluded that the five major meatpacking firms had
secretly fixed prices for years, had colluded to divide up markets,
and had shared livestock information to guarantee that ranchers
received the lowest possible price for their cattle. Afraid that
an antitrust trial might end with an unfavorable verdict, the
five meatpacking companies signed a consent decree in 1920 that
forced them to sell off their stockyards, retail meat stores,
railway interests, and livestock journals. A year later Congress
created the Packers and Stockyards Administration (P&SA),
a federal agency with a broad authority to prevent price-fixing
and monopolistic behavior in the beef industry.
For the next fifty years, ranchers sold
their cattle in a relatively competitive marketplace. The price
of cattle was set through open bidding at auctions. The large
meatpackers competed with hundreds of small regional firms. In
1970 the top four meatpacking firms slaughtered only 21 percent
of the nation's cattle. A decade later, the Reagan administration
allowed these firms to merge and combine without fear of antitrust
enforcement. The Justice Department and the P&SA's successor,
the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA),
stood aside as the large meatpackers gained control of one local
cattle market after another. Today the top four meatpacking firms-ConAgra,
IBP, Excel, and National Beef-slaughter about 84 percent of the
nation's cattle. Market concentration in the beef industry is
now at the highest level since record-keeping began in the early
Today's unprecedented degree of meatpacking
concentration has helped depress the prices that independent ranchers
get for their cattle. Over the last twenty years, the rancher's
share of every retail dollar spent on beef has fallen from 63
cents to 46 cents. The four major meatpacking companies now control
about 20 percent of the live cattle in the United States through
"captive supplies"-cattle that are either maintained
in company-owned feedlots or purchased in advance through forward
contracts. When cattle prices start to rise, the large meatpackers
can flood the market with their own captive supplies, driving
prices back down. They can also obtain cattle through confidential
agreements with wealthy ranchers, never revealing the true price
being paid. ConAgra and Excel operate their own gigantic feedlots,
while IBP has private arrangements with some of America's biggest
ranchers and feeders, including the Bass brothers, Paul Engler,
and J. R. Simplot. Independent ranchers and feedlots now have
a hard time figuring out what their cattle are actually worth,
let alone finding a buyer for them at the right price. On any
given day in the nation's regional cattle markets, as much as
80 percent of the cattle being exchanged are captive supplies.
The prices being paid for these cattle are never disclosed.
To get a sense of what an independent
rancher now faces, imagine how the New York Stock Exchange would
function if large investors could keep the terms of all their
stock trades secret. Ordinary investors would have no idea what
their own stocks were really worth-a fact that wealthy traders
could easily exploit. "A free market requires many buyers
as well as many sellers, all with equal access to accurate information,
all entitled to trade on the same terms, and none with a big enough
share of the market to influence price," said a report by
Nebraska's Center for Rural Affairs. "Nothing close to these
conditions now exists in the cattle market."
The large meatpacking firms have thus
far shown little interest in buying their own cattle ranches.
"Why would they want the hassle?" Lee Pitts, the editor
of Livestock Market Digest, told me. "Raising cattle is a
business with a high overhead, and most of the capital's tied
up in the land." Instead of buying their own ranches, the
meatpacking companies have been financing a handful of large feedlot
owners who lease ranches and run cattle for them. "It's just
another way of controlling prices through captive supply,"
Pitts explained. "The packers now own some of these big feeders
lock, stock, and barrel, and tell them exactly what to do."
Many ranchers now fear that the beef industry is deliberately
being restructured along the lines of the poultry industry. They
do not want to wind up like chicken growers-who in recent years
have become virtually powerless, trapped by debt and by onerous
contracts written by the large processors. The poultry industry
was also transformed by a wave of mergers in the 1980s. Eight
chicken processors now control about two-thirds of the American
market. These processors have shifted almost all of their production
to the rural South, where the weather tends to be mild, the workforce
is poor, unions are weak, and farmers are desperate to find some
way of staying on their land. Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and
Mississippi now produce more than half the chicken raised in the
United States. Although many factors helped revolutionize the
poultry industry and increase the power of the large processors,
one innovation played an especially important role. The Chicken
McNugget turned a bird that once had to be carved at a table into
something that could easily be eaten behind the wheel of a car.
It turned a bulk agricultural commodity into a manufactured, value-added
product. And it encouraged a system of production that has turned
many chicken farmers into little more than serfs.
"I have an idea," Fred Turner,
the chairman of McDonald's, told one of his suppliers in 1979.
"I want a chicken finger-food without bones, about the size
of your thumb. Can you do it?" The supplier, an executive
at Keystone Foods, ordered a group of technicians to get to work
in the lab, where they were soon joined by food scientists from
McDonald's. Poultry consumption in the United States was growing,
a trend with alarming implications for a fast food chain that
only sold hamburgers. The nation's chicken meat had traditionally
been provided by hens that were too old to lay eggs; after World
War II a new poultry industry based in Delaware and Virginia lowered
the cost of raising chicken, while medical research touted the
health benefits of eating it. Fred Turner wanted McDonald's to
sell a chicken dish that wouldn't dash with the chain's sensibility.
After six months of intensive research, the Keystone lab developed
new technology for the manufacture of McNuggets-small pieces of
reconstituted chicken, composed mainly of white meat, that were
held together by stabilizers, breaded, fried, frozen, then reheated.
The initial test-marketing of McNuggets was so successful that
McDonald's enlisted another company, Tyson Foods, to guarantee
an adequate supply. Based in Arkansas, Tyson was one of the nation's
leading chicken processors, and it soon developed a new breed
of chicken to facilitate the production of McNuggets. Dubbed "Mr.
McDonald," the new breed had unusually large breasts.
Chicken McNuggets were introduced nationwide
in 1983. Within one month of their launch, the McDonald's Corporation
had become the second-largest purchaser of chicken in the United
States, surpassed only by KFC. McNuggets tasted good, they were
easy to chew, and they appeared to be healthier than other items
on the menu at McDonald's. After all, they were made out of chicken.
But their health benefits were illusory. A chemical analysis of
McNuggets by a researcher at Harvard Medical School found that
their "fatty acid profile" more closely resembled beef
than poultry. They were cooked in beef tallow, like McDonald's
fries. The chain soon switched to vegetable oil, adding "beef
extract" to McNuggets during the manufacturing process in
order to retain their familiar taste. Today Chicken McNuggets
are wildly popular among young children-and contain twice as much
fat per ounce as a hamburger.
The McNugget helped change not only the
American diet but also its system for raising and processing poultry.
"The impact of McNuggets was so huge that it changed the
industry," the president of ConAgra Poultry, the nation's
third-largest chicken processor, later acknowledged. Twenty years
ago, most chicken was sold whole; today about 90 percent of the
chicken sold in the United States has been cut into pieces, cutlets,
or nuggets. In 1992 American consumption of chicken for the first
time surpassed the consumption of beef Gaining the McNugget contract
helped turn Tyson Foods into the world's largest chicken processor.
Tyson now manufactures about half of the nation's McNuggets and
sells chicken to ninety of the one hundred largest restaurant
chains. It is a vertically integrated company that breeds, slaughters,
and processes chicken. It does not, however, raise the birds.
It leaves the capital expenditures and the financial risks of
that task to thousands of "independent contractors."
A Tyson chicken grower never owns the
birds in his or her poultry houses. Like most of the other leading
processors, Tyson supplies its growers with one-day-old chicks.
Between the day they are born and the day they are killed, the
birds spend their entire lives on the grower's property. But they
belong to Tyson. The company supplies the feed, veterinary services,
and technical support. It determines feeding schedules, demands
equipment upgrades, and employs "flock supervisors"
to make sure that corporate directives are being followed. It
hires the trucks that drop off the baby chicks and return seven
weeks later to pick up full-grown chickens ready for slaughter.
At the processing plant, Tyson employees count and weigh the birds.
A grower's income is determined by a formula based upon that count,
that weight, and the amount of feed used.
The chicken grower provides the land,
the labor, the poultry houses, and the fuel. Most growers must
borrow money to build the houses, which cost about $150,000 each
and hold about 25,000 birds. A 1995 survey by Louisiana Tech University
found that the typical grower had been raising chicken for fifteen
years, owned three poultry houses, remained deeply in debt, and
earned perhaps $12,000 a year. About half of the nation's chicken
growers leave the business after just three years, either selling
out or losing everything. The back roads of rural Arkansas are
now littered with abandoned poultry houses.
Most chicken growers cannot obtain a bank
loan without already having a signed contract from a major processor.
"We get the check first," a loan officer told the Arkansas
Democrat-Gazette. A chicken grower who is unhappy with his or
her processor has little power to do anything about it. Poultry
contracts are short-term. Growers who complain may soon find themselves
with empty poultry houses and debts that still need to be paid.
Twenty-five years ago, when the United States had dozens of poultry
firms, a grower stood a much better chance of finding a new processor
and of striking a better deal. Today growers who are labeled "difficult"
often have no choice but to find a new line of work. A processor
can terminate a contract with a grower whenever it likes. It owns
the birds. Short of that punishment, a processor can prolong the
interval between the departure of one flock and the arrival of
another. Every day that poultry houses sit empty, the grower loses
The large processors won't publicly disclose
the terms of their contracts. In the past, such contracts have
not only required that growers surrender all rights to file a
lawsuit against the company, but have also forbidden them from
joining any association that might link growers in a strong bargaining
unit. The processors do not like the idea of chicken growers joining
forces to protect their interests. "Our relationship with
our growers is a one-on-one contractual relationship . . . ,"
a Tyson executive told a reporter in 1998. "We want to see
that it remains that way."
The four large meatpacking firms claim that an oversupply of beef,
not any corporate behavior, is responsible for the low prices
that American ranchers are paid for their cattle. A number of
studies by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have reached
the same conclusion. Annual beef consumption in the United States
peaked in 1976, at about ninety-four pounds per person. Today
the typical American eats about sixty-eight pounds of beef every
year. Although the nation's population has grown since the 1970s,
it has not grown fast enough to compensate for the decline in
beef consumption. Ranchers trying to stabilize their incomes fell
victim to their own fallacy of composition. They followed the
advice of agribusiness firms and gave their cattle growth hormones.
As a result, cattle are much bigger today; fewer cattle are sold;
and most American beef cannot be exported to the European Union,
where the use of bovine growth hormones has been banned.
The meatpacking companies claim that captive
supplies and formula pricing systems are means of achieving greater
efficiency, not of controlling cattle prices. Their slaughterhouses
require a large and steady volume of cattle to operate profitably;
captive supplies are one reliable way of sustaining that volume.
The large meatpacking companies say that they've become a convenient
scapegoat for ranchers, when the real problem is low poultry prices.
A pound of chicken costs about half as much as a pound of beef.
The long-term deals now being offered to cattlemen are portrayed
as innovations that will save, not destroy, the beef industry.
Responding in 1998 to a USDA investigation of captive supplies
in Kansas, IBP defended such "alternative methods for selling
fed cattle." The company argued that these practices were
"similar to changes that have already occurred . . . for
selling other agricultural commodities," such as poultry.
Many independent ranchers are convinced
that captive supplies are used primarily to control the market,
not to achieve greater slaughterhouse efficiency. They do not
oppose large-scale transactions or long-term contracts; they oppose
cattle prices that are kept secret. Most of all, they do not trust
the meatpacking giants. The belief that agribusiness executives
secretly talk on the phone with their competitors, set prices,
and divide up the worldwide market for commodities-a belief widely
held among independent ranchers and farmers-may seem like a paranoid
fantasy. But that is precisely what executives at Archer Daniels
Midland, "supermarket to the world," did for years.
Three of Archer Daniels Midland's top
officials, including Michael Andreas, its vice chairman, were
sent to federal prison in 1999 for conspiring with foreign rivals
to control the international market for lysine (an important feed
additive). The Justice Department's investigation of this massive
price-fixing scheme focused on the period between August of 1992
and December of 1995. Within that roughly three-and-a-half-year
stretch, Archer Daniels Midland and its coconspirators may have
overcharged farmers by as much as $180 million. During the same
period, Archer Daniels Midland executives also met with their
overseas rivals to set the worldwide price for citric acid (a
common food additive). At a meeting with Japanese executives that
was secretly recorded, the president of Archer Daniels Midland
preached the virtues of collaboration. "We have a saying
at this company," he said. "Our competitors are our
friends, and our customers are our enemies." Archer Daniels
Midland remains the world's largest producer of lysine, as well
as the world's largest processor of soybeans and corn. It is also
one of the largest shareholders of IBP.
A 1996 USDA investigation of concentration
in the beef industry found that many ranchers were afraid to testify
against the large meatpacking companies, fearing retaliation and
"economic ruin." That year Mike Callicrate, a cattleman
from St. Francis, Kansas, decided to speak out against corporate
behavior he thought was not just improper but criminal. "I
was driving down the road one day," Callicrate told me, "and
I kept thinking, when is someone going to do something about this?
And I suddenly realized that maybe nobody's going to do it, and
I had to give it a try." He claims that after his testimony
before the USDA committee, the large meatpackers promptly stopped
bidding on his cattle. "I couldn't sell my cattle,"
he said. "They'd drive right past my feed yard and buy cattle
from a guy two hundred miles further away." His business
has recovered somewhat; ConAgra and Excel now bid on his cattle.
The experience has turned him into an activist. He refuses to
"make the transition to slavery quietly." He has spoken
at congressional hearings and has joined a dozen other cattlemen
in a class-action lawsuit against IBP. The lawsuit claims that
IBP has for many years violated the Packers and Stockyards Act
through a wide variety of anticompetitive tactics. According to
Callicrate, the suit will demonstrate that the company's purported
efficiency in production is really "an efficiency in stealing."
IBP denies the charges. "It makes no sense for us to do anything
to hurt cattle producers," a top IBP executive told a reporter,
"when we depend upon them to supply our plants."
The Colorado Cattlemen's Association filed an amicus brief in
Mike Callicrate's lawsuit against IBP, demanding a competitive
marketplace for cattle and a halt to any illegal buying practices
being used by the large meatpacking firms. Ranchers in Colorado
today, however, face threats to their livelihood that are unrelated
to fluctuations in cattle prices. During the past twenty years,
Colorado has lost roughly 1.5 million acres of ranchland to development.
Population growth and the booming market for vacation homes have
greatly driven up land costs. Some ranchland that sold for less
than $200 an acre in the 1960s now sells for hundreds of times
that amount. The new land prices make it impossible for ordinary
ranchers to expand their operations. Each head of cattle needs
about thirty acres of pasture for grazing, and until cattle start
producing solid gold nuggets instead of sirloin, it's hard to
sustain beef production on such expensive land. Ranching families
in Colorado tend to be land-rich and cash-poor. Inheritance taxes
can claim more than half of a cattle ranch's land value. Even
if a family manages to operate its ranch profitably, handing it
down to the next generation may require selling off large chunks
of land, thereby diminishing its productive capacity.
Along with the ranches, Colorado is quickly
losing its ranching culture. Among the students at Harrison High
you see a variety of fashion statements: gangsta wannabes, skaters,
stoners, goths, and punks. What you don't see-in the shadow of
Pikes Peak, in the heart of the Rocky Mountain West-is anyone
dressed even remotely like a cowboy. Nobody's wearing shirts with
snaps or Justin boots. In 1959, eight of the nation's top ten
TV shows were Westerns. The networks ran thirty-five Westerns
in prime time every week, and places like Colorado, where real
cowboys lived, were the stuff of youthful daydreams. That America
now seems as dead and distant as the England of King Arthur. I
saw hundreds of high school students in Colorado Springs, and
only one of them wore a cowboy hat. His name was Philly Favorite,
he played guitar in a band called the Deadites, and his cowboy
hat was made out of fake zebra fur.
The median age of Colorado's ranchers
and farmers is about fifty-five, and roughly half of the state's
open land will change hands during the next two decades-a potential
boon for real estate developers. A number of Colorado land trusts
are now working to help ranchers obtain conservation easements.
In return for donating future development rights to one of these
trusts, a rancher receives an immediate tax break and the prospect
of lower inheritance taxes. The land remains private property,
but by law can never be turned into golf courses, shopping malls,
or subdivisions. In 1995 the Colorado Cattlemen's Association
formed the first land trust in the United States that is devoted
solely to the preservation of ranchland. It has thus far protected
almost 40,000 acres, a significant achievement. But ranchland
in Colorado is now vanishing at the rate of about 90,000 acres
Conservation easements are usually of
greatest benefit to wealthy gentleman ranchers who earn large
incomes from other sources. The doctors, lawyers, and stockbrokers
now running cattle on some of Colorado's most beautiful land can
own big ranches, preserve open space with easements, and enjoy
the big tax deductions. Ranchers whose annual income comes entirely
from selling cattle usually don't earn enough to benefit from
that sort of tax break. And the value of their land, along with
the pressure to sell it, often increases when a wealthy neighbor
obtains a conservation easement, since the views in the area are
more likely to remain unspoiled.
The Colorado ranchers who now face the
greatest economic difficulty are the ones who run a few hundred
head of cattle, who work their own land, who don't have any outside
income, and who don't stand to gain anything from a big tax write-off.
They have to compete with gentleman ranchers whose operations
don't have to earn a profit and with part-time ranchers whose
operations are kept afloat by second jobs. Indeed, the ranchers
most likely to be in financial trouble today are the ones who
live the life and embody the values supposedly at the heart of
the American West. They are independent and self-sufficient, cherish
their freedom, believe in hard work-and as a result are now paying