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Know the West

Privatize public lands? Start with grazing fees.

Advocates for federal-to-state land transfers have overlooked some of the implications, including higher grazing fees.


We’ve all heard the refrain from those who distrust and disparage the federal government: Give the nation’s public lands back to the people.  With 600 million acres of public land and over 330 million Americans, that means we would all get about two acres each. And once those acres were privatized, where would ranchers run their livestock?

These self-styled “patriots” don’t really believe that all Americans should have a slice of the nation’s public lands. They want ranchers to gain more control without paying for it, though right now, ranchers already use our public lands at a highly subsidized rate.

This is how it works: The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service charge fees for ranchers to run a cow-calf on public land; effective March 1 of this year, grazing fees were raised to $2.11 per A.U.M., or animal unit month, which is equivalent to one cow and calf or five sheep. Though this is a 25 percent hike over last year’s $1.69 fee, it is still woefully below fair market value. 


The fee change will affect 8,000 permits on Forest Service lands and 18,000 permits on BLM leases, covering a total of 235 million acres. Both the Public Lands Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association support the fee increase. But some ranchers resent paying a penny more, while some environmental groups regard any public-lands grazing as welfare ranching and a waste of the West. Why? Because, in 2014, the BLM and Forest Service spent $144 million on grazing programs and earned a piddling $19 million in lease income. We’ve got an Old West legacy persisting in a New West economy.

“Taxpayers are getting a raw deal regarding grazing,” says Travis Bruner, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project. “Americans are supporting a narrow welfare program for the benefit of Western livestock operations.”

Although some ranchers bellyache about having to pay any federal fees, in 16 Western states, public-land grazing is 80 percent cheaper than grazing on private land. Where do those grazing fees go? Half the dollars return to benefit stockmen, by funding cattle guards across roads, fencing, corrals, stock ponds and other improvements.

Then there’s the federal agency called Wildlife Services, which slaughters native predators like bobcats, wolves, black bears and coyotes. For a century, taxpayers have footed the bill to make public lands safer for sheep and cattle. Public-lands ranching may be a proud tradition out here, but less than 5 percent of the livestock consumed in the United States is produced on the West’s public land. There’s better grass in Missouri and Florida, and lots more of it.

If the federal government stopped renting out public land for grazers, the fees on private land would most likely balloon to about $20 for every animal unit month. We’d cancel range improvements and ground the Wildlife Services’ paid killers. And if we were serious about capitalism and free enterprise, we’d open grazing allotments to public bid just as we do oil and gas leases. If environmental groups moved to outbid cattle ranchers and sheepmen to protect high country meadows, so what? Let the market decide.

Old West sentimentality and Western heritage bump up hard against 21st century economics. “Grazing on federal land accounts for less than 1 percent of total income and employment in most of the region, according to the economist Thomas Power. Meanwhile, recreation and tourism have become ever more important,” writes James Surowiecki in The New Yorker. He adds, “Demonizing the federal government and trying to resuscitate the past may have its demagogic appeal. But the Old West is gone, and it isn’t coming back.” 

I would rather see a cow than a condo on our public land. I like beef, though I prefer elk and venison, and for Christmas dinner this year, we had leg of lamb with jalapeño mint jelly. Most Americans live in cities and suburbs, and they don’t know which end of a cow gets up first. But those city slickers do know about sweetheart subsidies, and they know what steak or lamb costs at the supermarket. 

As a historian, I believe in tradition. I believe in the hard work that generations of ranching families have put into living in a semi-arid Western landscape. Public-lands ranching has a firm place in the American West, but ranchers might want to stop spouting anti-government rhetoric and give the revived Sagebrush Rebellion a pass. Privatize public lands? Be careful what you ask for.

Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a professor of history and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College and can be reached at [email protected]