The Big Buyout

Tough economics, drought and increasing clashes with recreational users have pushed some public-lands ranchers to the edge. Now, check-wielding conservationists want to give them an easy way out.

  • John Whitney III at an empty corral on his Circle Bar Ranch

    Mark Skalny
  • Bill Hedden of Grand Canyon Trust

  • Cows graze on the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument in northern Arizona, where conservationists and the BLM have recently bought out ranchers and retired grazing allotments

    National Park Service
  • Bill Marlett of Oregon Natural Desert Association

  • Ancient juniper in proposed Badlands Wilderness, where livestock grazing permits will be retired this year

    Greg Burke photo courtesy ONDA
  • John Whitney's Circle Bar Ranch may become a dude ranch

    Mark Skalny

There’s something missing from the Circle Bar Ranch.

John Whitney III, a tall, stocky, white-haired rancher, once ran about 1,250 head of cattle. But when drought hit Arizona six years ago, the Forest Service gradually shrank the herd he was allowed to run on the 156,000-acre allotment he leases on the Tonto National Forest, about an hour east of Phoenix.

Drought wasn’t Whitney’s only problem. Growing legions of off-road enthusiasts had turned his allotment into a motorized playground. More than once, Whitney found his herd scattered to the winds, his gates swinging open. Once, he discovered a dead cow, the victim of some gun-wielding joyrider, Whitney suspects.

Add to these headaches his children’s reluctance to take over the ranch, and Whitney has come to a tough conclusion: It’s time to hang up the spurs and get out of ranching for good.

"We’re out of the cattle business," Whitney says. "We’re through with the Forest Service."

Since 2002, Whitney’s operation has been a ranch in name only. There are no cows here.

So it is that Whitney, a self-described conservative, finds himself in an unlikely alliance with a group of environmentalists. The activists have an agenda of their own: They want cattle removed from hundreds of millions of acres of public land, to allow the land to recover from what they describe as more than a century of destructive grazing practices.

Organized as the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, the activists are veterans of numerous legal and political battles over grazing. But now, they’re taking a new tack; instead of wielding lawsuits to force a reduction in cattle numbers, they’re offering the region’s aging ranchers cold, hard cash to quit grazing. The campaign’s leaders are pushing two congressional bills that would pay ranchers to voluntarily give up their federal grazing permits.

Is this a nod to ranchers’ longstanding claims to ownership of the public range? Well, not quite. "All we’re acknowledging is that those ranchers who have purchased ranches and have public-land allotments paid money," says Bill Marlett, one of the leaders of the buyout campaign and director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association. "And we’re willing to pay money to buy (the allotments) back."

The economics and regulatory pressures of cattle ranching have become so onerous that Whitney and some other public-land operators now welcome the prospect of a one-time buyout that could put hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, into their pockets.

"If we’re going to get kicked out of here, we’d like to get compensated," says Whitney, who has traveled to Washington, D.C., four times to lobby for a buyout bill for Arizona ranchers.

Despite the growing interest of ranchers, the buyout advocates have a tough road ahead. Most cattlemen’s organizations strongly oppose any reduction in grazing allotments; they see it as the first step toward kicking all ranchers off public land. And they still have strong political allies in Washington, D.C., including Richard Pombo, R-Calif., who chairs the House Resources Committee. Pombo serves as the gatekeeper for such bills, and he has called the nationwide buyout measure "dead on arrival." Even the campaign’s leaders acknowledge that passing buyout legislation will take years.

But even as ranching groups and environmental organizations duke it out in the halls of Congress, momentum is growing on the ground. Willing ranchers, conservationists and public-land managers are working together to retire federal grazing allotments — and, in the process, put some money in the pockets of ranchers.

On patches of rangeland from Oregon to Utah, the strict legal and political framework that for more than a century has kept cows on public land has begun to bend.

A mandate to graze

Cattlemen first staked their claim to the public range during the Civil War — and they’ve fought hard to keep it ever since.

By the late 1800s, most federal land was open range. For the most part, ranchers could graze as many cattle as they wanted, wherever they wanted, for free. The federal government’s role was that of promoter. In 1870, there were 4.1 million beef cattle and 4.8 million sheep roaming the West. By 1900, those numbers had climbed to 19.6 million beef cattle and 25.1 million sheep.

The unregulated boom took such a toll on the land — and caused such friction between competing cattle barons — that the federal government eventually grabbed the reins. In the early 1900s, the Forest Service tried to restrict grazing on its newly created forest reserves, but met with little success. Then, in the 1930s, as much of the West buckled under the Depression and rangelands withered in the drought, Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act, expanding federal grazing management to more than 100 million acres of previously open range. The law divided the public range into grazing "allotments," leased under 10-year renewable permits, and imposed a small fee for the privilege of running cows and sheep on the land. In the following years, as the new regulations took effect, the number of livestock — and the number of ranchers who raised them — began to decline.

The same basic allotment system remains in place to this day on the approximately 270 million acres of rangeland managed by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. But in recent decades, grazing has become ever more contentious. Laws passed in the 1960s and ’70s — including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act — required the agencies to examine the ecological impacts of grazing. What they discovered was not pretty. In some areas, scientists linked grazing directly to massive soil erosion, water pollution, endangerment of species and the overall degradation of ecosystems. The land agencies, pushed by environmentalists, began to respond with stiffer regulations, occasionally reducing cattle numbers and, rarely, in places like New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, enforcing outright closure of grazing allotments (HCN, 10/22/01: Healing the Gila).

Conservationists also began beating the drum about the economics of public-lands ranching. In 2003, for instance, the BLM collected about $12 million in grazing fees, but spent $50 million on administrative costs — things like issuing permits, developing grazing management plans, and keeping an eye on range conditions. Critics say that, when all of the agencies are included, the grazing program costs the federal government about $124 million annually.

Federal grazing fees are notoriously low. Ranchers pay just $1.79 per Animal Unit Month, far below the $5 to $15 per AUM it costs to graze state or private lands (one AUM equals the forage necessary to support a cow and her calf for one month). But attempts to increase grazing fees have failed numerous times under intense rancher opposition, most recently in the early 1990s.

For years, ranchers have benefited from — and resisted changes to — a long-standing congressional mandate to promote grazing. Federal regulations interpreting the Taylor Grazing Act and the more modern Federal Land Policy and Management Act allow agencies to "rest" a grazing allotment for three years, or sometimes longer during times of drought or other hardship. Actually retiring a permit, however, takes a lot more paperwork: The administering agency must change the area’s management plan to cancel grazing on the allotment for the long term. Even when that happens, there’s no guarantee of permanence. When the management plan comes up for revision — usually every 10 or 15 years — the agency has the option to re-open the allotment. The only way to permanently retire a grazing permit is through an act of Congress.

While many ranchers and BLM managers recognize that sensitive lands or high-conflict areas can benefit from the removal of cattle — indeed, some have used their discretion to keep cattle out of certain areas for extensive periods of time — they have resisted reform from above.

In the mid-1990s, then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt attempted to establish "conservation permits," which would have allowed ranchers to rest allotments for up to 10 years, with no questions asked. That policy shriveled in the courts, however. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, siding with ranchers, ruled that the Taylor Grazing Act requires permit holders to run cattle on the land. The Supreme Court later upheld the decision. Under federal law, "you cannot have a grazing permit and not use it," says Tom Gorey, a grazing specialist in the BLM’s Washington, D.C., office.

A closure here, a closure there

Of course, it’s not really that black-and-white. Despite its legal mandate — and its history of keeping as much of the public domain as possible open for grazing — the federal government has permanently closed dozens of federal allotments over the past few decades. Most have been located in national parks and monuments, and other protected places.

In 1988, for example, the Park Service got money from Congress to buy back permits from ranchers in Capitol Reef National Park; the agency retired 70 percent of the park from grazing over the next several years, ending a dispute that dated back to the park’s designation in 1971. Another significant buyout occurred at Oregon’s Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge (HCN, 11/10/03: A revival on Hart Mountain).

In the 1990s, conservation groups began to get into the buyout game, looking for ranchers willing to retire allotments in other areas of conflict. In 1992, in one of the earliest buyouts by a conservation group, the Conservation Fund bought out a permit for 53,000 acres in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Utah. The group then relinquished the permit to the National Park Service, which permanently retired the allotment.

The trend intensified with the surge in new national monuments and other protected areas on BLM lands during the Clinton era. In several cases, the president or Congress directed land managers to retire grazing. In other places, such as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah and Oregon’s Steens Mountain, ranchers have accepted payoffs to give up their grazing permits. Similar efforts are under way in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument (HCN, 11/10/03: On a new national monument, has an agency been cowed?).

Sometimes the money has come from the federal government, but most often it has come from conservation groups and private philanthropists, including foundations. Today, at least a half-dozen conservation and sportsmen’s groups, including the Grand Canyon Trust, the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep Association, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Oregon Natural Desert Association have buyout programs. The Conservation Fund alone has purchased grazing permits covering 2.5 million acres over the last 10 years.

The growing obstacles to making a decent living from the ranch — including global competition and a penny-squeezing meatpacking monopoly — have continued to drive the demand for buyouts.

"The ranchers have been extremely excited about selling permits," says Bill Hedden, who directs the Grand Canyon Trust and has orchestrated buyouts in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. "I’ve been called by many, many ranchers who wish they could sell, from people sick and tired of dealing with the federal government to people who can no longer take care of the ranch for one reason or another."

A deal is born

Another prime motivator for buyouts is the increasing conflict between ranchers and other public-lands users — particularly those with backpacks or all-terrain vehicles. Just ask Tony Heaton, whose family has spent three generations grazing a far-flung stretch of the Arizona Strip, the huge swath of mostly public land reaching north from the Grand Canyon to the Utah border. Two years ago, just a few years after his grazing allotments became part of the new Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, Heaton decided to quit running cattle on about 44,000 acres of public land near the Mount Trumbull Wilderness.

"The designation of the monument made it very difficult to operate," says Heaton, tipping back in his chair in his office in St. George, Utah, the nearest town. "People were leaving gates open, cutting fences, and we had real serious problems with people turning off water valves, which regulate water to livestock."

Heaton had heard about conservation groups buying out grazing permits, and he told Roger Taylor, field manager for the BLM’s Arizona Strip field office, that he was interested in selling his grazing permit for the allotment. "I didn’t want to just give it away," says Heaton. "The permit has value. The water has value." Taylor put Heaton in touch with Mike Ford of the Conservation Fund in neighboring Nevada, and a deal was born. The Conservation Fund paid Heaton $220,000 — about $5 an acre, or $66 per AUM — to give up the allotment, and the BLM put it in temporary "non-use." The agency is considering formally retiring the permit in the forthcoming management plan for the monument.

The Arizona Strip office has also retired grazing on two other allotments, says Taylor — one because of recreational conflicts and the other because of the need to protect critical habitat for the threatened desert tortoise.

The retirements are not permanent, but Rick Moore, associate director of the Grand Canyon Trust, believes they will all hold up over time.

"Once it’s done, it’s going to be darn hard to undo," Moore says. "With the voluntary buyouts we’ve done, we worked in good faith and we all worked together. If someone comes back and tries to strong-arm the agency, we’re going to be defending it, and people would have to go back on their word."

Taylor says Heaton’s fellow ranchers on the Strip seem largely unfazed by the buyout, probably because the rancher himself initiated the deal. But even so, says Taylor, "we are getting a very clear message (from ranchers): ‘Don’t make a habit of this.’ "

Flies in the ointment

Just north of the Arizona Strip, in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a series of grazing-allotment buyouts arranged by the Grand Canyon Trust has drawn a welter of criticism from the local ranching community (HCN, 4/14/03: Change comes slowly to Escalante country).

Most recently, Utah’s Kane and Garfield counties sued the BLM, claiming that it exceeded the legal limit for the amount of acreage that can be retired. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act says that Congress must be notified if a major use is eliminated on more than 100,000 acres. According to the counties, the BLM failed to do so. Hedden says that the Trust helped the BLM retire only 92,000 acres.

A handful of ranching advocates are also appealing the Trust’s purchase of the permits through administrative channels. They argue that the BLM should not have transferred the permits to a group that did not intend to graze the lands.

The challenges irk Hedden. "The heart and soul of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which we bought from willing ranchers, is being threatened," he says. "If we were just some ranchers who came in and bought (the grazing permit), nobody would have said boo."

The controversy seems to have spooked land managers in northern Arizona, where the Trust and the Conservation Fund recently purchased an exclusive option to buy the Kane and Two-Mile ranches and their accompanying allotments, which stretch from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to the Utah border. The groups will buy 1,000 acres of private land — the "base" property of the ranches — as well as federal and state grazing permits totaling almost 900,000 acres. Most of the allotments are within Forest Service and BLM lands (HCN, 8/2/04: Buying ecological leverage).

In the beginning, the Forest Service acknowledged resource problems on some of the land and agreed to consider closing it to grazing, according to Hedden. But after ranching groups protested, the Forest Service told the group it must run cattle, at least at first.

Richard Madril, stewardship ranch leader for Kaibab National Forest, says that during their first year, new permit holders are required to run at least 90 percent of the number of cattle allowed under the permit.

The conservationists could then rest the land for three years, he says, but then they’d either have to resume grazing or else return the permit to the Forest Service, which would put it back on the auction block.

"What we have is two different faces of the agencies," says Hedden. "On one hand, you have their monitoring data, which show lots of problems. On other hand, you have the political animals who are very offended if you say the land is not in good shape."

Ranching interests are keen to make sure conservationist permittees follow the letter of the law.

"We’ve never objected to any transfer of ownership of allotments," says Doc Lane of the Arizona Cattle Growers Association. "If they have the money to pay for them and want to buy them, that’s their business. Now, if for some reason Grand Canyon Trust decides they’re not going to use the allotments as the laws say they’re supposed to, then we’d have a problem."

Agencies take a small step

The agencies themselves, besieged by land-use conflicts and facing pressure from all sides, are looking for ways to loosen the regulatory strictures. In a small but significant gesture, BLM leaders are tweaking the agency’s grazing rules to allow ranchers to keep cattle off their allotments for longer periods of time. The new rule will eliminate the current three-year limit. Permit holders who wish to rest an allotment past the three-year mark will have to request an extension each year.

"What we’re looking at is a flexible approach that would look at both the livestock needs and the conservation needs," says Gorey of the BLM. "We think it will improve working relationships and benefit the land."

Marlett and other conservationists say the new rules are a step in the right direction. They are also heartened by more liberal retirement language being promoted by individual BLM offices.

"What you’re seeing is BLM’s attempt to, in a very subtle manner, raise the opportunity for a permittee to take non-use indefinitely," Marlett says. "In my opinion, it’s not enough, but it’s kind of like the Titanic — it’s not going to change course overnight."

But the bottom line remains unchanged: Only Congress can approve a permanent retirement of grazing allotments. Which is why Marlett and the other members of the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign are looking for a legislative home run that would create the mechanism and money for a permanent buyout program.

Long odds

The legislative campaign got off the ground three years ago, with the introduction of a pair of buyout bills in Congress: one allows buyouts on 257 million acres of public lands throughout the West, and another establishes a pilot buyout program in Arizona. Both bills would offer ranchers $175 per animal unit month (AUM), considerably higher than the average AUM value of $35 to $75. Buying out all of the grazing permits — about 18 million AUMs leased by 25,000 ranchers — could cost about $3.3 billion, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

Together, the bills had about 22 sponsors, including Reps. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., George Miller, D-Calif., and Christopher Shays, R-Conn. They have yet to be reintroduced in this Congress.

But most cattlemen’s groups, spooked by visions of a cow-less West — and by their own declining power — oppose a federal buyout. That makes some individual ranchers who are ripe for a deal reluctant to speak out, according to rancher John Whitney.

The buyout bills have precipitated a flurry of letter-writing from both buyout activists and ranching groups. In one of its letters to permittees, the Public Lands Council, the national lobbying arm for cattle ranchers, wrote: "The organizations behind this idea are the same livestock grazing industry opponents who consistently file lawsuits and appeals with the ultimate goal of driving livestock producers from our federal lands."

Buyout proponents say the ranching groups are acting out of fear. "They know there would be a flood of people who would want to take advantage of (a buyout). And that scares them," says Bill Hedden of the Grand Canyon Trust. "They think allowing a rancher to make his own decision somehow threatens the ranching culture."

Some ranching groups have eased their opposition to buyouts, however. The Oregon Cattlemen’s Association recently passed a resolution supporting a buyout of a federal permit in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. But the group stops short of endorsing buyouts across the board.

"It’s a complex issue," says Micah Wells, the group’s governmental affairs officer. "We’re not in favor of grazing buyouts, but at the same time, it might be an option some people may want to look at."

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association recently came out in support of ranchers who wish to sell their grazing permits because of regulatory hardships. But the group continues to oppose the federal buyout legislation.

Even some within the conservation community are wary of the buyout bills. Groups that have long relied on litigation and administrative appeals to force cattle reductions are reluctant to pay ranchers anything, according to Andy Kerr, who directs the Public Lands Grazing Campaign.

Some buyout practitioners, who have been cutting private deals for years, are uneasy about working with environmental activists. "We could not and would not ever sign on with that campaign," says the Conservation Fund’s Mike Ford, who worked for the BLM for 25 years before joining the nonprofit. "We don’t want to be perceived as being anti-grazing, because we’re not. We’re really about balance."

At the same time, Ford commends the campaign for offering carrots instead of sticks. "I’m encouraged that instead of spending millions of dollars on lawsuits, people are looking for solutions," he says.

Hedden, who supports the buyout legislation for the permanence it would bring to grazing retirements, says the campaign "has forced some people who have been the most hard-nosed advocates in the anti-grazing campaign to talk a lot with ranchers. There’s been a humanizing on both sides that I think is a good thing."

The end of ranching?

Ultimately, it will be the ranchers who determine the future of the buyout business. If enough of them are motivated to strike deals with conservation groups or lobby for buyouts, elected officials, federal managers and ranching organizations will sit up and listen. A few hundred ranchers could move the political pendulum toward a buyout-friendly West far more easily than an army of green activists could.

No one knows for sure exactly how many ranchers are interested in buyouts. But an Arizona poll found that about 160 of the state’s 870 federal grazing permittees back the Arizona buyout bill. And a letter mailed out to all public grazing permittees has generated interest from "hundreds" of ranchers, according to the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign.

Ironically, John Whitney sees buyout legislation as the best hope for keeping ranchers on the land. "The buyout is not the end of ranching in the West. Far from it," he says. "We can use that money to continue ranching on more suitable land or start other businesses. It would be a godsend for many rural communities."

But for now, at least, the skeptics appear to have the upper hand. Whitney now says he’d like to see changes to the bill that would limit its reach to specific, high-conflict areas, and allow for a retired allotment to be re-opened with the approval of independent range experts. Without those changes, he says, the legislation’s chances of passing the current Congress are nil.

"We took four trips out there (to D.C.), and we just got our butts kicked," says Whitney. "When you say ‘permanent,’ they (the congressmen) don’t like that."

And truth be told, neither does Whitney. "I can tell you as a producer for 35 years, ranchers don’t want this permanency," he says. "Once it’s gone, it’s gone."

As congressional aides and ranchers tweak the Arizona legislation, Whitney is casting about for other ways to make a profit on his own moribund ranch. He’s negotiating with a potential buyer who wants to turn the base property into a dude ranch, where equestrian-tourists can pay to play cowboy. The new owner may run a few cattle on the ranch for aesthetic appeal, Whitney says.

The increasing recreation pressure on the Tonto National Forest makes a buyout from a group like the Grand Canyon Trust unlikely, he says. "We’ve got 2,000 to 3,000 ATVs running around helter-skelter on any given weekend. Everybody’s given up on trying to keep the fences up."

Even so, he’s leaving the gate open to a possible buyout.

"If somebody said we’d buy it from you for fair market value, we’d love to sell it," he says. Then, with a grin: "And then they’d have to deal with the Forest Service."

The author writes from Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Buyouts by the numbers

- One BLM district grabs the bull by the horns

- Public-lands ranchers: Should you trust this man?

This story is funded by the generous donors to the "Who Will Take Over the Ranch" project, a series of stories on the plight of the West’s private lands.


Mike Ford Conservation Fund, 702-990-3540,

Bill Hedden Grand Canyon Trust, 928-774-7488,

Andy Kerr National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, 541-201-0053, (Web site includes an interactive work sheet to help permittees figure out how much they would receive under the federal buyout legislation)

Robert Towne BLM Prineville District, 541-416-6766

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, 303-694-0305,

John Whitney Circle Bar Ranch, 602-320-4272


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