Ranch Diaries: The anti-ranching, misinformed discourse around Malheur

The federal grazing system doesn't support good management.


Ranch Diaries is an hcn.org series highlighting the experiences of Laura Jean Schneider, who gives us a peek into daily life during the first year of Triangle P Cattle Company, a new LLC in southcentral New Mexico. Installments are every other Tuesday.

When my editor asked me to comment on the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, I was apprehensive. Response to mainstream coverage of this incident has been so anti-ranching that I wondered if I could set aside my strong reaction to those sentiments in order to consider the core issues. After some reading and research, it seems to me that this incident exemplifies a struggle that runs as deep as the history of the land itself. The Malheur occupation is symptomatic of a history of land use fraught with class struggle, privilege and the abuse of a resource imperative to our existence and identity. Rash sentiments surrounding the issues — on both sides — orbit something much more complex: Who has the right to use lands — specifically, federally-owned lands — and why?

The question of ownership is at the core of land use. The use of land like the Malheur refuge is the public’s business because we have elected the government that manages it. The federal government owns it on behalf of the public, and allows public access.

  • After a long morning checking cattle on federal lands.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Homestead on a federal permit in the Gila Wilderness.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • The one constant.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • The West and its water.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • The West is more about power than any single thing.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • The wire that changed everything.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Who does or does not thrive, and how is that decided?

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Who stays? Who leaves?

    Laura Jean Schneider

The armed takeover of a wildlife refuge may not be the best way to facilitate changes in the use of federal land. But Ammon Bundy and his group have incited many strong opinions around a subject that has not been fully explained: how federal grazing permits really work. The single most overlooked fact about federal grazing permits is that they are attached to actual property rights. Contrary to the misinformation perpetuated by phrases like “welfare ranchers,” a federal grazing permit involves much more than a low grazing fee. The most common way to graze livestock on federally owned land is to purchase a ranch with an attached permit for nearby lands. Keep in mind that anyone ranching with a federal permit owns the exclusive right to graze livestock on a certain range but must share other uses of the land because the federal government holds the title.            

Upon acquiring the base property and associated grazing rights, the rancher is required to sign a ten-year permit with the federal government. This contract gives the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management the authority to regulate how that rancher manages livestock on federal land. If a person purchases a multi-million dollar ranch that includes grazing rights on federal land, he or she still has to pay an annual grazing fee per head of livestock as part of the permit. It’s most similar to the maintenance fees that co-op owners in an apartment building pay as dues. They may not own the land or the physical structure of the building, but they own the right to use their apartment, according to the terms of a contract.

The current system dates to the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, which split the open range into smaller allotments, each with specific regulations called operating instructions. While this and subsequent environmental policies have codified the land management process in a manner suitable to bureaucratic oversight, approaching the Western landscape like this takes the landscape out of context. Thus, the current system does not support effective management, land health or ranching. Limiting ranch management practices on federal lands to rigid regulations does not allow for the flexibility that healthy ecosystems require. Both commercial ranching in big, arid country and wild ecosystems function best on a large scale. As a result, the allotment system — meant to prevent overgrazing, rein in monopolistic ranching and establish the grazing rights of smaller ranchers — has been a huge source of contention. With smaller scale ranchers now protesting the original basis for jurisdiction and billionaires again putting together huge spreads, environmentalists are unhappy, people are out of work, and the land is suffering. No one is winning.

A landscape management framework that assesses the components of the big picture and how they work together (which a few ranchers and federal agency personnel have been able to implement in spite of bureaucratic obstacles) promotes flexibility among grazing allotments, allowing ranchers to better accommodate seasonal changes, forage growth, and wildlife. This way, when things like wolves, wildfires, and recreational interests collide with ranching, creative solutions can be a reality, not a dream.

Instead of vilifying grazing on federal lands, we should reimagine Western landscapes from a holistic viewpoint that includes insects, backpackers and buckaroos. Ranchers are required to respect federal title to the land, and if the public also recognized and respected the property rights these ranchers own, we might find ourselves at a good place to continue positive, healthy improvement on federal lands.

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