tivity measured in terms of the principal use of rangeland--livestock grazing. Today, nearly all government agencies that administer grazing base range condition on ecological status--the land's actual production of vegetation measured in terms of the quantity and quality of plants most suitable for the desired use of the range. But one large and costly task remains: collecting and evaluating data on ecological status.
Complicating this task in the question, What is "optimal" range condition or ecological status? Good reasons exist for believing that private owners will manage ranges wisely to maximize the net worth embodied in the land. But when society captures benefits that are unavailable or are of little interest to landowners, private management may not be socially optimal. At the same time, because of distorted incentives and a lack of improvement measures, little evidence exists that public management offers a panacea. It is not obvious that investment to improve the rangeland will yield positive net social benefits.
Range managers in the United States can no longer be sanguine concerning the state of knowledge about range condition and trends. Some range condition studies appear to have been politically motivated and thus cannot be trusted; others have been flawed because poor measurement and evaluation techniques were used. Much more needs to be done to evaluate the condition of U.S. rangeland as well as the economic feasibility of various practices intended to improve it. Environmentalists and public officials appear to be miles apart from private ranchers in judging range condition and trend. The result of this tension is that the courts have been asked to resolve by precedent or by legal argument important policy questions.
Management and administration of rangeland need improvement. The current permit systems that allocate grazing on public land are still inefficient because they prevent allowable AUMs of forage from moving to those ranchers who would value them most. Agency rules governing management control also reduce incentives for private investment on public rangeland. Recent legislation such as the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 and the Public Rangelands Improvement Act of 1978 has stabilized somewhat the institutional environment within which public rangeland is administered, but many significant policy questions remain unresolved.
The author gratefully acknowledges support from the Kennedy Center for International Studies at Brigham Young University, and owes a large debt to John Workman, Roger Sedjo, Ken Frederick, Marion Clawson, John Fedkiw, technical editor Samuel Allen, and three anonymous reviewers for helpful suggestions for improving earlier drafts. The caveat still applies that the author alone is finally responsible for the content of the paper. Student research assistants at Brigham Young University--Marshall Daneke, Suzanne Amos Hyland, and Melissa Grant--were also helpful in data acquisition and analysis.