Mention “beef” to most environmentalists, and they react like you just uttered a four-letter word.

That’s because beef comes from cattle, and cattle are the enemy—if you believe the manifestos of the more-strident “conservation” groups, that is.

Take the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, for example. Here’s their official stance on the use of public lands for raising cattle: “The ecological costs of livestock grazing exceed that of any other western land use. By destroying vegetation, damaging wildlife habitats and disrupting natural processes, livestock grazing wreaks ecological havoc on riparian areas, rivers, deserts, grasslands and forests alike—causing significant harm to species and the ecosystems on which they depend.”

According to the center, in addition to destroying vegetation, damaging stream banks and contaminating waterways with manure, cattle reduce “once-lush streams and riparian forests to flat, dry wastelands; once-rich topsoil to dust and [cause] wholesale elimination of some aquatic habitats.”

Wow. About the only thing bovines aren’t accused of is supporting illegal immigration.

Environmentalists also squawk about the fees paid to lease acreage on public lands for grazing, claiming that the relatively low costs amount to a “subsidy” for ranchers—as if food production isn’t subsidized across all sectors. Just the availability of irrigation water alone across millions of acres of range and farmland represents billions in so-called subsidies—but it results in an abundant, affordable food supply from which we all benefit.

The “ranchers are getting a free ride” rhetoric plays well with consumers, who never have to conduct a cost-benefit analysis regarding land use decisions. Three years ago, in fact, the center sued the government to reform (ie, raise fees) or eliminate the federal grazing program as a money waster. In 2011, however, the Obama administration refused to do either.

However, the real traction activist groups gain isn’t related to economic messaging, but rather the notion that if only cattle were eliminated from public rangelands, all would be well, environmentally speaking. Such a stance is powerful in its simplicity, but ecologically about as wrong-headed as it’s possible to be.

A sound, sensible alternative

Despite the doomsday scenarios eco-activists try to promote, Pima County (Arizona)—the epicenter of many land-use battles—has done an admirable job developing a comprehensive Multi-Species Conservation Plan (MSCP) that addresses several contentious issues, among them cattle grazing.

For background: Pima County, which borders Mexico for hundreds of miles across southern Arizona, is largely publicly owned, with several Native reservations, including the 4,400-square mile Tohono O’odham Nation (formerly known as Papago Indians); the San Xavier Indian and Pascua Yaqui Indian Reservations; Saguaro National Park; Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument; and Ironwood National Forest.

The MSCP, developed by a coalition of real estate and mining representatives, ranchers, environmentalists, Native Americans and community groups, is awaiting approval, pending a review by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The plan’s 2012 creation followed decades of state and local squabbling over development vs. preservation of the once-upon-a-time uninhabited, semi-arid rangeland and Sonoran Desert landscape that comprised the region.

That’s understandable: In the last 30 years the rapid urbanization of Tucson virtually tripled the population there, making the metro area home now to nearly a million residents.

The MSCP covers all county-owned land, unincorporated private property under county jurisdiction and Arizona State Trust Lands managed by the county and designated for grazing leases. Habitat protection for some 44 species of plants and animals considered threatened or ESA-listed is mandated under the plan’s 30-year timeframe, including protection of such iconic species as the desert tortoise, Western cuckoo and the pineapple cactus.

Two elements of the plan are critical: Mitigation, which requires that sections of planned development be set aside as open space, or other acreage designated a such to mitigate that development; and ecological monitoring, which requires county officials to regularly inspect and report to F&WS officials on the condition of vegetation, water resources and wildlife populations in areas covered by the plan.

All this is relevant to the controversy over running livestock on public lands, first of all because it is virtually impossible to raise cattle in Arizona without access to large grazing tracts, given the relative scarcity of forage. Indeed, Pima County has acquired 13 cattle ranches since 2004 that include private land now owned by the county plus state and federal lands leased to the county.

Second, and more importantly, far from being a blight on damaged rangeland, grazing is potentially its salvation.

That’s because Southwestern grasslands experience only seasonal rainfall, interspersed with long months of dryness. As Allan Savory, the foremost proponent of using herbivores to restore damaged savannahs and prairies, explained in a 2012 paper titled, The U.S. Drought—A Manmade Natural Disaster, “If you sample the land from the best conventionally managed ranches, no matter how good the grassland might superficially appear, anywhere from 50% to over 90% of the soil is bare between grass plants. This guarantees ever-increasing frequency and severity of droughts.”

Savory’s explanation? “Too few large livestock on the land showing unnatural behavior in the absence of pack-hunting predators. This leads to over-resting the land while overgrazing the grass itself.”

Even more importantly, “resting” rangeland—as eco-activists such as those at the Center for Biological Diversity insist is the only valid prescription—is the worst conservation strategy for areas with low rainfall and/or long dry seasons. It works fairly well in the Northeast, or Mid-Atlantic states, where year ’round precipitation supports rapid re-growth of ground cover. But unless the land is covered with plant life and dead plant litter, rainfall tends to rapidly run off or evaporate from the soil, ensuring that even in years with “normal” rain, vegetative viability suffers.

It’s what Savory calls “pastoral drought”—not necessarily a lack of precipitation per se, but the failure of rainfall to soak into the soil and nourish healthy production of grass. When coupled with an actual meteorological drought, such as the West experienced in 2012, the combination is devastating.

In large part, that’s what eco-activists are reacting to when they bemoan the state of Arizona’s southern rangelands. But they refuse to accept either the underlying cause—too few livestock behaving unnaturally—or the remedy: More cattle, managed intensively and allowed access to areas where they can help, rather than hurt, the local vegetation to thrive.

Make no mistake: Such a strategy is neither easily done nor politically palatable. But at least the more enlightened land management plans, such as Pima County’s, include provisions for maintaining cattle on suitable rangelands. That’s important.

But to be successful, industry’s role must include “selling” that notion to a skeptical public.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.