You say you want to cut government spending? Kick off cows

  • "Cow" cash and scissors

    Diane Sylvain

Dear Congress: Since you say you want to stop wasteful federal spending, I am writing to alert you to what's going on at the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, where, in 1990, they spent $52 million more managing livestock than they collected in fees.

Part of the problem is that the current grazing fee is less than $2 per head per month. That's below the $3.22 per month the agencies reported they would have needed to break even administering grazing in 1990.

Keep in mind that these agencies incurred their 1990 multimillion-dollar deficits while administering livestock programs that were seriously inadequate. The often-heard claim that the public range is "in better shape than at any time in this century" is misleading. While upland areas may have improved since the turn of the century, they are certainly not as healthy as they were before ranchers brought cattle to the West. And according to the Environmental Protection Agency, our important remaining riparian areas are in the "worst condition in history," primarily due to overgrazing.

Improving livestock management on public land is expensive, and the Tonto National Forest's range program, which received the Forest Service Chief's Award in 1992, is an expensive example of that. In the last few years this Arizona forest has spent or made a commitment to spend large sums of public monies to build many miles of fence and scores of cattle troughs.

Last year the Tonto committed to spend $261,000 on the 79,500-acre Dos S unit of the Sunflower grazing allotment so that a rancher could continue to graze 450 head of cattle in the Sonoran desert. On the 39,600-acre Six Bar grazing allotment, the Tonto recently proposed to spend up to $98,000 to allow a rancher to graze about 250 head all year.

In the Tonto Basin, where steep desert country surrounds an important water reservoir, officials have persuaded the Bureau of Reclamation to spend $2.1 million, or about $191,000 per ranch, so cattle can continue to graze on the 11 allotments around Roosevelt Lake.

These expenditures account for only a baker's dozen of the approximately 100 grazing allotments on the Tonto. Since the Forest Service and BLM manage a total of about 27,000 grazing allotments covering about 270 million acres across the West, it's easy to see that any large-scale implementation of improved livestock management must be accompanied by an increase in the grazing fee or these agencies will be incurring even larger deficits at the taxpayer's expense.

The low grazing fee is only part of the problem. Another part is the eagerness of these agencies to invest public money in every rancher, regardless of the rancher's level of stewardship. Some ranchers have so damaged public resources with their livestock the agencies should be considering filing suit against them to recover damages. But instead every grazing permittee is given the opportunity to water at the public money trough.

Land stewardship isn't the only thing the agencies ignore. The Dos S permittee was recently implicated in an investigation by the Arizona Game & Fish Department as a co-conspirator in the illegal killing of mountain lions. The permittee for the Six Bar allotment hasn't even grazed the allotment, or paid grazing fees, in more than two years.

Does it make sense for grazing to continue? The Forest Service and BLM currently permit livestock in hot deserts, riparian areas, wilderness regions, endangered species habitats, sensitive watersheds and in recreation areas.

In Arizona, where the predominant ecosystem is desert, grazing is so widespread that more than 67 percent of the 11.2 million acres managed by the Forest Service and more than 87 percent of the 14.2 million acres managed by the BLM are grazed.

The multiple-use doctrine, under which these agencies operate, requires them to allow only those uses of the land that are in the interests of the American people. But when they authorize livestock on any piece of land, they consider, it seems, only this: Is there a rancher who wants to graze it?

The Tonto National Forest is again a good example. The 1985 environmental impact statement for their forest plan divides the forest's approximately 2.9 million acres into areas of full capacity, potential capacity and no capacity range. The full capacity and potential capacity regions are considered suitable for grazing. The areas classified as no capacity, about 904,000 acres, are physically inaccessible to cattle.

In other words, the criteria for the land's grazing suitability was whether a cow was able to walk across it.

Subsidies that perpetuate grazing in the wrong place throughout the West should stop now - if Congress means what it says. I'll believe it when I see it.

Jeff Burgess writes in Tempe, Ariz.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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