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Know the West

In Idaho, rancher buyouts take a big step forward

Idaho's White Cloud Mountains seem like an unlikely place for the beginning of a positive shift in public-land management. They gleam high and cold above the seemingly endless sagebrush plains of southern Idaho, one of the most conservative states in the West. Yet it was here last year that Republicans worked with environmentalists to plant a legislative seed that may help reverse a century of decline for native plants and wildlife all over the West.

Summers last only a few weeks in the White Cloud Mountains, and with off-road vehicles and mining closing in on these once-remote expanses, environmentalists have campaigned since the 1970s for wilderness protection. Recently, frustration with congressional inaction led to a push for a 600,000-acre national monument, which President Obama seemed ready to endorse. Then the Republican Idaho congressional delegation agreed to compromise on a 275,000-acre wilderness bill that passed last August.

Castle and Merriam peaks in the White Cloud range.
Wilderness bills, though rare these days, sometimes include unfortunate concessions, such as the Hondo Wilderness bill in New Mexico, which had to reduce acreage to accommodate mountain bikers. But the Boulder-White Cloud wilderness bill included a provision that both ranchers and environmentalists supported, and it's one that may help shift public-land grazing throughout the West. It allows ranchers to voluntarily sell or donate their federal grazing leases back to the Forest Service on 700,000 acres surrounding the newly designated wilderness. In turn, the Forest Service will permanently close the affected grazing allotments. In large part, ranchers agreed to relinquish these allotments after years of predator-cattle conflicts within the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

Though other localized buyout programs have passed Congress since 1998, ranchers have defeated national buyout legislation because of the precedent-setting nature of ending grazing allotments, and because some ranchers consider federal grazing areas their private property. The Boulder White Clouds bill reveals that an aging population of ranchers, struggling to make ends meet in a drought-affected, urbanizing West, may be ready to ride off into the sunset.

According to BeefResearch.org, 65 percent of ranchers are over age 55 and only 12 percent are under 45 years old. As the majority of ranchers reach retirement age, most don't have children willing to do the hard work and earn the low pay that comes with ranching in the arid West. Buyouts offer ranching families a chance to end their ranching careers with a decent income.

Farther south, in New Mexico's Gila Mountains, nonprofit organizations have been working for years to develop a grazing allotment buyout plan to restore overgrazed Forest Service land and reduce cattle-Mexican wolf conflicts. Many ranchers say they are ready to take privately funded buyouts on a half-million acres of public land, but the Forest Service is making things difficult: It is blocking the buyouts because having fewer cattle allotments to manage means budget cuts for the agency.

The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management spent about $128 million in 2013 administering their grazing programs while receiving only $12 million in receipts from ranchers, a small fraction of which goes back to the agencies. These direct costs to taxpayers stand beside incalculable indirect costs, such as watershed damage, and the spread of flammable cheatgrass where cattle have trampled biotic crusts. There's also the impact of grazing on hundreds of millions of acres of sage grouse habitat and recreation areas in high-altitude wilderness areas.

Since 2011, a bill to permit permanent federal grazing allotment buyouts has languished in Congress. Called the Rural Economic Vitalization Act, it would authorize buyouts on any federal lands and would be a critical tool for agencies facing endangered species conflicts, such as the BLM with sage grouse, or the Forest Service with bison, wolves and 170 other species. If passed, the bill would allow conservation groups, ranchers and agency managers to end grazing on key areas in a way that promises both dignity for the rancher and restoration for the land.

This market-based solution should appeal to conservative politicians (as it has in Idaho) as well as to many ranchers of retirement age.

By endorsing grazing buyouts in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho's congressional delegation has given the national buyout campaign the biggest bipartisan push it has received to date. Idaho especially stands to gain if agencies can relieve grazing pressure on sage grouse habitat. Ending grazing with buyouts will finally begin the long process of native plant restoration over hundreds of millions of acres of public land.

Tom Ribe is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion syndicate of High Country News. He is a conservationist and writer who watches the West from the southern end of the Rocky Mountains in Santa Fe.