A proposal to designate more than 250,000 acres in the western U.S. as "wilderness" — thereby placing severe restrictions on land use and having the potential to ultimately drive ranchers out of business — was quietly inserted into the National Defense Authorization Act by House and Senate lawmakers Tuesday night.
E&E Publishing first reported on the deal. The bill is expected to come up for a vote in the next week.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in a statement Wednesday called the move an "extreme land grab" and urged House and Senate to "reject this attempt by self-serving politicians to exploit the men and women of the military to serve their special interests.”
The new wilderness areas include portions of New Mexico, Washington, Colorado, Nevada and Montana.
Wilderness designations were created by The Wilderness Act in 1964. Wilderness is defined as "an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions."
Government land regulations, including wilderness designations, are investigated in TheBlaze TV's season finale episode of For the Record, "Losing Our Land," (Wednesday, Dec. 3 at 8:00 p.m. ET).
For ranchers who use public lands to graze their cattle, wilderness designation can mean severe restrictions, both in number of cattle they're allowed to raise and how they're allowed to maintain their land.
John Fowler is an agricultural economist at New Mexico State University who has studied the impact of wilderness designations on ranching. He says that despite promises from Congress that wilderness designations would not hurt the "allotment," or number of cows a rancher is allowed to raise on a certain piece of land, in reality, they represent a crushing blow.
"The ranches around the wilderness were cut by 55 percent, but those ranches that were in the heart of the wilderness have lost up to 95 percent of their capacity," Fowler told For The Record.
Walt Anderson, a rancher in southern New Mexico, said that being limited to smaller herds of cattle can drive people out of business quickly.
"A real easy way is to come in and cut your cattle numbers to the point that you can no longer function," Anderson said. "You can’t pay your taxes. You can’t keep up your waters."
Another impact on ranchers in wilderness areas comes from the restrictions placed on motorized vehicles. Instead of using a pickup or four-wheeler to build and maintain water systems and other critical infrastructure, everything must be hauled in by horses or other pack animals.
"They tell them OK, you’ve got to do it all horseback now, load a pack mule, load your pickup and go do it horseback. You can’t do it mechanically, which it was put in mechanically to start with," Anderson said. "The water lines have to be repaired. It’ll catch up."