Public-lands ranchers: Should you trust this man?

  • Andy Kerr

    Elizabeth Feryl photo courtesy Andy Kerr
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "The Big Buyout."

Andy Kerr, who has been an environmental activist for more than 20 years, was a key figure in the struggle to curtail logging in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, he is the director of the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, which seeks to pass legislation that would allow the federal government to buy federal grazing allotments from ranchers and permanently retire the land from grazing. HCN executive director Paul Larmer recently interviewed Kerr about his transformation from lawsuit-wielding agitator to carrot-carrying negotiator.

PAUL LARMER:

Do you see any irony in the fact that you are leading the charge to send rather large checks to public land ranchers?

ANDY KERR:

Not really. I used the stick to protect the spotted owl, and I don’t regret that at all. But in 1996, I had my mid-life crisis, and I started looking to do something different. Retiring grazing permits rose to the top because I think we need to do something big to reverse the extinction curve for species such as sage grouse, grizzlies and wolves. And grazing is one of the biggest obstacles for these species.

Some people have told me: "Andy, you are the wrong messenger. You can’t carry the stick and the carrot at the same time." I disagree. Because we have the stick and know how to use it, we are the logical ones for ranchers to negotiate with.

My board members belong to some of the most litigious environmental groups working on public-lands issues. When I first brandished this idea to them (of buying out ranchers), everyone to a person hated it. But appreciation is growing due to its pragmatism.

LARMER:

Why is it pragmatic?

KERR:

The market for cattle ranchers has changed; today, there is intense international competition in the beef industry that makes grazing on vast acreages in the arid West uneconomical. Plus, we’ve changed the rules. Ranchers have to deal with federal laws protecting water and endangered species, and also with more recreational users who don’t understand or respect ranching.

The public-lands ranching industry is going extinct; not as fast as the sage grouse or the grizzly, but it is going extinct. And the buyout is a fair way to address this inevitability. It’s a politically elegant solution: The golden saddle.

LARMER:

How has your campaign been received by other environmentalists?

KERR:

Some folks are concerned about paying ranchers at all. Others are concerned that ranchers will be paid more than fair market value. But there is no free market here. You and I can’t go buy a grazing permit. It’s a closed system. So the campaign seeks to create a market in order to end a market.

I tell my enviro friends, "Hey, it’s just money." We environmentalists are always saying there is more to life than money, so why get hung up on giving these ranchers a generous deal?

LARMER:

But can’t the argument be made that grazing is a privilege and not a right, so the government should be able to retire allotments without compensating ranchers?

KERR:

The government has the power to close allotments without compensation, but that ignores reality. A grazing permit is not a property right, but it is a property interest. Ranchers can borrow money at a bank against their permits, and when they sell their private base properties, the price they receive is higher because they have associated federal permits.

LARMER:

The price you would pay ranchers — $175/AUM — would turn some ranchers into instant millionaires. Does this bother you?

KERR:

No. The federal grazing program loses half a billion dollars a year, so the $175 per AUM price in our bill is a great deal for taxpayers. The reductions in the cost of managing the system will pay back the up-front costs of buying out ranchers in a few years, and the ecological benefits will be huge.

LARMER:

Won’t the retirement of allotments hurt the local towns and communities that rely on ranchers for their economy?

KERR:

You’ve got that backwards: The ranchers aren’t supporting the towns; the towns are supporting the ranchers. Most ranching families have to get second jobs in town to support the ranch.

LARMER:

But won’t it cause a new wave of development as ranchers sell out their private base properties once their tie to the federal lands is gone — the cows or condo conundrum?

KERR:

Development is a reality in the West. If the best agricultural lands in the country in California’s Central Valley and Oregon’s Willamette Valley can’t compete with development, then how can our poorer agricultural lands in the interior West? Buyouts could actually slow the pace of development; they will capitalize the ranchers so they don’t have to make a hurried decision to sell, and so they can get conservation easements in place that allow them to stay on the land longer.

LARMER:

If your approach is so good, why are the cattlemen’s groups so opposed?

KERR:

The leadership of the national rancher organizations hates the idea because they have a vested interest in perpetuating the status quo. But the membership doesn’t; it understands the economics. If this split sounds familiar, it is: Industries have long claimed environmental groups are more interested in perpetuating conflict than solving problems. Public-lands ranchers are going through the five steps of grief and are coming to realize that the buyout is a viable solution. Some are fantasizing about using the buyout money to buy ranches in Nebraska, where it actually rains.

LARMER:

Will your legislation ever pass?

KERR:

It will take a while to pass national legislation. But site-specific legislation is on the move. In Arizona, ranchers on the Tonto National Forest are pushing an Arizona buyout bill; the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, backed by Republican Mike Simpson, has a buyout provision and it is moving forward; and we have congressmen and senators supporting a buyout of ranchers in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.

Even if national legislation never becomes law, we will be successful if buyouts become a routine way to handle conflicts. When there is an endangered species or recreation conflict with grazing on public lands, a buyout should always be one of the options.

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