Grazing reform: Here's the answer

  • Sketch of a cow

    Diane Sylvain

We are veterans of America's longest war: the war over the public lands of the West. For the past quarter century - in a conflict that dates back to the Civil War - we have written and spoken about livestock grazing on federal lands and fought over how those lands should be governed. We have, in the process, pitted ourselves and our affiliations - the fiscally and politically conservative Cato Institute and the environmentalist and politically liberal Natural Resources Defense Council - against one another.

But the range policy fence that has divided us is toppling, thanks to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and the Republican Revolution.

While we and the organizations we represent disagree on many issues, our common ground starts with the federal lands of the West. They are expansive, making up half of the 11 westernmost states. They are awe-inspiring, containing many of the country's most treasured landscapes. They are ecologically rich, stretching from alpine meadows to desert basins. They are culturally laden, vital to our history and our American identity. They are part of the myth that moved Thoreau to write, "Eastward I go by force, but westward I go free."

Western public lands are important for many things, but thanks to the "wisdom" of federal policy, the use to which they are put favors the one thing Americans want least from them: subsidized cows. Almost 200 million acres of federal grass are devoted to producing less than 3.5 percent of the nation's beef. Take away those acres and the cost of a steak wouldn't increase by a penny. And fewer cows would lessen the current oversupply of cattle and slow the plunge in beef prices.

We are not arguing for a purge of livestock and stock growers from all federal ranges. Public-land ranchers are largely decent and caring people whose love of the land is real.

What we object to are the laws and policies that have made cattle and sheep the political business of the West and that are the source of degradation of millions of acres of public lands. We think it perverse that so-called range reforms - the grazing regulations set by Babbitt on Aug. 21 and the Public Rangeland Management Act proposed by Sen. Pete Domenici - should erect fences around grazing to protect ranchers from economic and environmental responsibility.

Babbitt's regulations attempt to shore up the ailing system of public-land grazing with more federal dollars and regulations. Rather than ask the fundamental question: "Is livestock grazing what the public wants?" , Babbitt assumes it is and then mandates that taxpayers continue to pay for it and that scientific managers engineer it to perfection.

Domenici's approach is more protective, more frightening, and far worse for the environment. Like Babbitt, he would keep the subsidies that sustain public-land ranching at current levels. But he would also erect even higher fences to protect the cowboy monopoly on federal lands. His act would make growing beef a matter of law, not choice. Ranchers who want to graze their lands conservatively - or not at all - would face loss of their federal permits.

Non-ranchers who want to buy permits and use federal grass to grow wildlife or to heal wetlands would be cut out of Domenici's "use it or lose it" public-land West. Bankers with collateral interests in grazing permits would win, ranchers with large grazing permits would win; taxpayers would lose. Other than paying the tab, taxpayers' say in public-land management would be ceremonial at best under Domenici's act.

We believe there is another strategy that better fits the present needs of the nation and is real range reform. It answers the Republican call for fiscal soundness and less government, Babbitt's call for more public involvement and environmental protection, and the White House's call for incentives and markets in environmental policy.

First, Congress should put public-land grazing on a market footing. This means ranchers, not taxpayers, should pay for using federal grass. It means zeroing a range-budget deficit that is almost $500 million per year on BLM and Forest Service lands when the costs of planning, resource mitigation, and USDA range subsidies are added to the official $70 million grazing shortfall.

Raising grazing fees won't cut the red ink, though; costs must be trimmed. Ending the practice of sending half of grazing fee revenues back to the ranchers to prop up the current system of public-land grazing will have the same effect as doubling the fee without costing ranchers on sustainable, healthy lands any more money.

Further, $100 million to $200 million can be sliced from the grazing deficit by ending USDA subsidies - like brush control, animal damage control, and emergency feed - and by making ranchers shoulder more of the costs of grazing on public lands. This should reduce overgrazing and increase taxpayer satisfaction with how federal lands are used.

Second, Congress should bust the cowboy trust on federal lands. All Americans should be free to acquire permits to federal grass and to use the lands to enhance wildlife, stabilize soils, protect endangered species, improve riparian areas or, if they prefer, raise red meat.

This can be done if Congress eliminates base property requirements for permits, ends the "use it or lose it" rule for federal grass, and lifts restrictions on subleasing.

If this happens, concerned environmentalists will have less cause to push for a political end to grazing on ecologically fragile public lands. For the first time, they will have market options, like buying all or a portion of a rancher's permit or simply subleasing federal forage. This would ease strife between ranchers and environmentalists and cut administrative costs, putting another dent in the grazing deficit.

Third, Congress should authorize the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture to engage in an array of range reform experiments that might better protect public lands. Let's explore alternative commercial uses of federal grass - uses that might be gentler to the land and better suited to a sustainable Western rural economy than cows.

Let's consider putting a percentage of public-land user fees aside for biological diversity trust funds - monies to protect species and habitats. And let's look at non-fee incentives to bring about better stewardship of federal lands and more effective ways of involving interested citizens in decision-making and management.

Our range reform package is not a panacea. It does, though, reflect the value of open discourse - a discourse that Domenici's protectionism precludes and that Babbitt's regulations steer away from. Our package will not only tear down the fences that divide organizations like ours, but also those that divide East from West and the new West from the old.

Karl Hess Jr. is a senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and Johanna H. Wald is director of the Land Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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