Grazing foes float a buyout

But will ranchers and Congress buy in?

  • Grazing cattle

    Jon Christensen
  • Andy Kerr

 

For years, anti-grazing groups like the Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity have used the hammer of Endangered Species Act lawsuits to force federal agencies to halt or reduce overgrazing on public lands. But when about 30 of those groups met in Reno, Nev., two years ago, Oregon environmentalist Andy Kerr convinced Jon Marvel, head of the Western Watersheds Project, that a massive voluntary federal buyout program would work faster (HCN, 8/2/99: Jon Marvel vs. the Marlboro Man). Soon he had the major players in the movement - including the Oregon Natural Desert Association, the American Lands Alliance and Forest Guardians - organized under a new umbrella called the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign.

"The very practitioners of the stick approach are now saying we want a carrot approach," says Kerr.

This April, the Campaign sent out letters to about 26,000 ranchers who graze cattle on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service land, proposing that Congress ought to buy their federal grazing permits for $175 per animal unit month (AUM). That could be an attractive offer, especially at a time when ranchers are hurting economically.

But the grazing campaign needs ranchers' help to pitch the proposal to Congress, and many ranchers seem unlikely to form a new political coalition with the very people who have been trying to put them out of business. Less militant environmentalists, who already have been honing the soft-sell approach, say a massive West-wide buyout campaign could just antagonize ranchers even more.

A hard sell

The buyout would cost $3.3 billion if all 27,000 federal grazing permittees, including those with permits from agencies like the Fish and Wildlife and National Park services, signed up - an average of $13.45 for each acre in the program, the Campaign says. Funds could come from either the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, a $9 billion annual trust fund, or from the U.S. Treasury. A rancher who grazes 300 cattle on public lands would receive a one-time payment of $262,500, if Congress approved the $175/AUM price. That rate is higher than what Kerr says is the typical market value of $70/AUM to $100/AUM for a federal grazing allotment.

"This would result in tremendous savings to the taxpayer," says Kerr, who argues that taxpayers currently subsidize the federal grazing program by an amount of $500 million per year - a figure that ranchers dispute.

But moving the idea forward will take more than number crunching. The coalition must convince Congress not only to spend money for the buyouts, but also to amend the long-sacrosanct Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 to ensure that once grazing permits are purchased by the public, the allotments would not be grazed in the future.

"We don't think it's a very viable proposal," says Carole duBois of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "These are the same people who are continuously bringing lawsuits to put ranchers out of business. We have gotten a number of calls from our members who are very upset by this. And we've certainly let Congress know that we don't think this is a very good idea."

Bill Marlett of the Oregon Natural Desert Association disagrees. He notes that many family ranchers are suffering from hard times economically, and the buyout may offer an attractive road to early retirement. "Just because we have a policy of ending public lands grazing doesn't mean we can't be empathetic to the ranchers' plight," says Marlett. "We don't have horns."

So far, the campaign has yet to land a single congressional sponsor. The group's members admit that ranchers have strong influence in Congress; subsidies such as cheap grazing fees have remained intact for years, despite heavy lobbying by environmentalists. But activists like Kerr hope that the lure of $3.3 billion for ailing ranchers will convince at least one Congressional friend of the ranching industry to take the initiative under his or her wing.

One potential candidate is Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig. "I have no doubt that there are ranchers who are struggling, and a buyout is very tempting," says Craig's spokesman, Mike Tracy. "But is that what's best for the West? I think most ranchers will resist it because they like their lifestyle and they think grazing is a good use of public lands."

Polarization

The concept of buying out ranchers to stop livestock grazing on public lands is not new. A number of private interests, including the Grand Canyon Trust, have worked with individual ranchers to purchase allotments in the Colorado Plateau. Since 1996, the Trust has bought about 750,000 acres of federal grazing leases and convinced the Bureau of Land Management to permanently retire those grazing allotments (HCN, 2/1/99: Fun-hogs to replace cows in a Utah monument).

The National Public Lands Grazing Campaign's proposal is "polarizing this whole thing pretty drastically right now," says the Grand Canyon Trust's Moab, Utah, representative Bill Hedden. "That might not be good for us or the environment.

"The ranchers could all link arms and say, 'I don't want to sell to anybody under any circumstances,' and then we could be stopped from being able to negotiate any further," says Hedden. "This has the potential to stymie the work that's going on by the Grand Canyon Trust."

There are also concerns that ranchers who accept the buyout of their grazing permits might then sell their base property to subdivision developers, resulting in the loss of open space and wildlife habitat. "In some cases, where the base ranch isn't large enough to support a viable livestock operation, the next step would be residential development, and then you've lost the open space forever," says Idaho state Sen. Laird Noh, R-Kimberly, a board member of The Nature Conservancy in Idaho. "I think it's a bad idea."

Marvel counters that in some instances, conservation-minded landowners might turn their base ranches into small-scale wildlife preserves. At the Western Watershed Project's Greenfire Ranch, on the East Fork of the Salmon River, Marvel says. "We had 100 deer and elk down on the ranch every day during the winter. If we had the whole East Fork valley dedicated to wildlife, it'd be like a mini-Lamar Valley," (the immense high-elevation meadows in Yellowstone National Park).

Any congressional action won't happen until 2003 at the earliest. In the meantime, anti-grazing forces have been fielding phone calls from interested ranchers on a daily basis. Marvel says the calls at his office have been running about 90 percent in favor of the proposal.

One rancher told Marvel that he is tired of being criticized by environmentalists and recreationists in California, where he grazes livestock on the Plumas National Forest: "The guy said, 'It's just not worth it anymore. I'm a bug in a bottle.' "

Stephen Stuebner frequently contributes to High Country News from Boise, Idaho.

YOU CAN ...

  • Review the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign proposal in detail at www.publiclandsranching.org;
  • Contact Andy Kerr, campaign founder, 541/201-0053, or e-mail andykerr@andykerr.net;
  • Contact Carole duBois, National Cattlemen's Beef Association, 202/347-0228, or e-mail cdubois@beef.org.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Stephen Stuebner