Detente in the rancher v. environmentalist grazing wars?

  • A new law authorizes voluntary grazing permit retirements with the 25 million-acre California Desert Conservation Area.

    Bureau of Land Management

If you've been trolling the news recently, you might think that ranchers still reign supreme over the federal estate, despite the fact that the number of cattle and sheep on public lands has declined by more than half since the 1950s.

In November, for example, the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a scientific integrity complaint against the Bureau of Land Management -- which oversees most of the West's 260 million acres of grazing allotments -- over a planned study of ecological trends in the region. The agency had ordered scientists to consider the influence of wildfires, invasive species, urban sprawl and climate change, but not livestock grazing, citing "anxiety from stakeholders," concern over potential lawsuits and insufficient data. Then it decided to include grazing after all, but didn't distinguish livestock impacts from those of deer, elk, and feral horses and burros. The Interior Department is investigating PEER's complaint.

Legislation introduced in May by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., would double a grazing permit's term to 20 years and exempt renewed or transferred permits from environmental review. And last January, the Forest Service and BLM rejected a petition by conservation groups challenging the vastly below-market rates they charge for grazing.

Despite all this, it's clear that public-lands grazing is facing changes. An important trend is the building momentum of a decades-long movement -- one that would give ranchers a way out of public-lands grazing entirely.

In November, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., introduced the Rural Economic Vitalization Act, or REVA, a sweeping piece of legislation that would allow federal agencies to permanently retire grazing allotments anywhere in the West if ranchers voluntarily waive their permits. (Under federal law, if a rancher simply sells a permit, the purchaser must continue grazing.) Third-party conservation groups would pay compensation at market values, and no more than 100 permits could be retired each year. Two other buyout provisions became law in late December, authorizing voluntary permit retirements within the 25 million-acre California Desert Conservation Area as well as for any domestic sheep grazing allotment located within bighorn sheep range anywhere in the West.

One of the first congressionally authorized buyouts came in 1998, in Arches National Park. In 2009, the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act allowed ranchers in parts of Oregon and Idaho to permanently retire their permits. The broader scope of REVA could help federal agencies respond more quickly to conservation conflicts and emergencies across the West, such as rehabilitation after wildfires. "Permit retirement is here to stay," says John Horning, executive director of the Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians, one of the main groups campaigning for retirement. He calls it a pragmatic, market-driven solution. "Its influence will continue to grow, as the economic realities of grazing come up against environmental conflicts over sage grouse, bighorns and wolves."

Permit relinquishment gives ranchers options, say proponents; they can pay off debts, shift to more productive private land, invest in other businesses, or retire altogether. But the Public Lands Council, which represents ranchers, sees reductions in available grazing land as the beginning of the end. "We're adamantly opposed to buyouts that retire land from grazing," says Dustin Van Liew, the council's executive director. "It sets a dangerous precedent. If you lose enough infrastructure, the whole industry could collapse."

Other critics of buyout programs point to potential consequences such as the loss of accompanying private ranch land to development; problems with the maintenance or removal of fences, gates and water sources on allotments; and cultural, economic and social impacts on ranchers and rural communities. The BLM's position on the issue is neutral, according to senior public affairs specialist Tom Gorey.

Still, congressionally authorized buyouts offer important advantages over piecemeal approaches to grazing conflicts, say conservation groups. Some have negotiated their own permit buyout deals with federal agencies, such as in the Greater Yellowstone area, but those retirements typically aren't permanent and must be renegotiated when the agency updates management plans.

Lawsuits are another approach; groups such as the Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project have won many major cases. One recent ruling will force the BLM to consider grazing impacts on sage grouse across 30 million acres of public land; another placed an injunction on grazing on 450,000 acres in Idaho until the BLM completes a new management plan.

The problem with litigation, says Western Watersheds' Brian Ertz, is that court decisions don't provide immediate conservation benefits. Instead, they often result in further delay while the agencies perform additional studies and analysis -- which may or may not create tangible, permanent changes on the ground. And because lawsuits are adversarial, with winners and losers, they don't allow for collaboration. "We are willing to wield the stick with lawsuits, but we'd rather have a carrot there," says Ertz.  Nor can lawsuits address one of the biggest issues complicating land-use conflicts -- the fact that multiple federal agencies oversee grazing with different responsibilities, rules and authorities.

Although neither REVA nor  Sen. Barrasso's Grazing Improvement Act will likely get through the gridlocked 112th Congress, there are other signs that the livestock industry's political grip may be weakening just a bit. In October, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of  2006 rulings overturning Bush-era regulations that did not comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. Among other pro-grazing provisions, those regulations  reduced public participation in grazing decisions, let ranchers acquire water rights on allotments, and gave them shared title to range improvements like fences. "Even though the livestock industry is still entrenched in the West," says Horning, "the ground under its feet shifts every day in ways that diminish its geographic scope and ultimately its political influence."

Mark Bailey
Mark Bailey Subscriber
Jan 23, 2012 03:42 PM
Great summary, Jodi, thank you. The buyout is sometimes referred to as a "golden saddle." I like that. I like how even though the grazing permits are not rights, the proposed buyout recognizes that the permits have been treated as such and are a value to the permittee. I like how it is a free market-like choice, putting together willing buyers with willing sellers. It always strikes me as strange that the grazing industry stands against the individual rights of the rancher on this one. It won't be the end of the industry and it will only make a much needed capital infusion into our small, rural towns. And it will help the much strapped budgets of the BLM and Forest Service since a lot of what they do is provide and support range-land for ranchers at taxpayer expense. And man oh man, will it ever help the fragile environment of the West to get some grazing pressure off of it.
Mark Bailey
Mark Bailey Subscriber
Jan 23, 2012 04:15 PM
I just noticed the legislation sponsor's name is Adam Smith. An almost-too-perfect name for a guy coming up with an "invisible hand" market based solution. With such poetic grace on its side, the grazing retirement buyout is clearly meant to be.
Eric Nagle
Eric Nagle Subscriber
Jan 23, 2012 08:20 PM
Jodi, I am disappointed that you neglected to note that ranchers do not, in fact, "own" their permits, and that a buy-out represents a payment for giving up a privilege that has always been revocable. BLM and the Forest Service always have the authority through their planning processes to determine that grazing lands should be put to other use, or no use at all. The unfortunate reality, of course, is that federal land managers almost never make that choice, so permit "buy-outs" are a politically expedient means of greasing the skids for conservation. It may be that, at the end of the day, deals like this produce the best outcome for the land and wildlife, but any fair reportage of this issue should at least acknowledge that such payments of taxpayer dollars do not represent fair compensation for lost "rights", and are necessary only because of the disproportionate political power of ranchers and the reluctance of federal managers to stick their necks out.
Jodi Peterson
Jodi Peterson Subscriber
Jan 24, 2012 09:38 AM
Hi Eric, thanks for the comment. Yes, you're absolutely right that grazing permits can be revoked but that federal agencies seldom do so. In a short, overview article like this one (which appears as it ran in the print magazine), there's never enough space to cover every single aspect of an issue, unfortunately. Other more comprehensive HCN stories, such as The Big Buyout (listed above as a related story), have addressed that aspect. Sincerely, Jodi Peterson, Managing Editor
Ronna Sommers
Ronna Sommers
Jan 24, 2012 02:41 PM
What in gods'name is that steer going to find edible in that landscape..? (just going by the photo!)
Tom Ribe
Tom Ribe
Feb 01, 2012 12:49 PM
The livestock industry and it's promoters like Quivara Coalition use subdivision of base properties as a scare tactic to maintain grazing on public lands. In fact the collapse of the real estate market in 2007 has greatly reduced development pressure nationwide, but especially in rural areas where jobs are few. The likelihood of ranches being "subdivided" in Challis, Idaho or Reserve, New Mexico is near zero now given the state of real estate so it's time for people to stop using that reflexive argument to maintain welfare ranching on public lands.

I don't know about other readers but hearing the ranchers call our public lands "grazing infrastructure" as Dustin Van Liew did offends me a little. Our public lands are not industrial infrastructure. They are ecosystems and a trust heritage that ranchers use as a privilege, not as a right. I hope we can help ranchers get out of this money losing, watershed abusing business quickly with passage of REVA.