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Know the West

Ranchers now have a way out


The years-in-the-making Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 finally became law last month. The act designates more than 2 million acres of new wilderness, plus 1,100 miles of new wild and scenic rivers, and it also  includes an increasingly popular model for resolving grazing conflicts on  public lands. In two Western states -- Oregon and Idaho -- ranchers can now permanently retire their grazing permits on select public lands. Private interests, mainly nonprofit conservation organizations, would pay ranchers to do it.

Grazing-permit retirement is a voluntary, non-regulatory, market-based solution to grazing problems. Congress last legislated this approach in 1998, when it provided for permit retirement in Arches National Park in Utah. With the omnibus bill, Congress has now authorized ranchers to retire many more grazing allotments on much larger expanses of public land.

The new law allows for grazing-permit retirement on over 2 million acres in and near Oregon's Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, and in six new wilderness areas in Idaho's Owyhee Canyonlands. Grazing conflicts with other public values on these public lands, and ranchers have found it increasingly difficult to raise livestock there.

Permit retirement provides public-lands ranchers with options that they do not currently enjoy. The ranchers who choose to do so can then use their compensation to retire, pay off any debts, restructure their operations on private lands, or invest in new economic opportunities that would benefit their communities by creating new sources of income, tax revenue and employment.

As public lands rancher John Whitney III of Arizona said back in 2005, "The buyout is not the end of ranching in the West. Far from it. 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."

There's also a benefit for bureaucrats: Once livestock are removed from public lands, litigation over grazing conflicts with wildlife, watersheds, recreation and other public values will almost certainly decrease. Agency resources spent developing grazing plans, defending against lawsuits, processing endless paperwork, and responding to public protests over grazing abuse could be redirected to more important matters.

Fewer livestock on public lands will probably also result in fewer new listings of endangered species and also speed recovery of species already listed under the Endangered Species Act. Other benefits are improved water quality and quantity, and better hunting, fishing, birding and hiking on public lands.

A recent survey indicates that approximately half of the public-lands ranchers in Nevada are interested in retiring their grazing permits -- so long as they are offered a reasonable price. This leads us to propose that Congress create a national grazing-permit retirement program similar to the tobacco and peanut quota buyouts enacted in recent years.

Increasing competition from domestic and foreign producers, recreational use, increasing costs and stricter enforcement of environmental protections are rendering public-lands grazing untenable on many public lands. But grazing permits represent a sizable investment for ranchers, who may have also developed water storage and fencing on their grazing allotments. A voluntary permit-buyout program allows permit-holders to recover their stranded investments in public-lands grazing.

Giving ranchers the opportunity to voluntarily retire their grazing permits is a good deal for everybody. It's socially just, ecologically overdue, economically rational, fiscally prudent, and perhaps more important than anything, it's a politically acceptable solution to grazing problems on publicly owned lands.

The writers are contributors to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). Mark Salvo directs the Sagebrush Sea Campaign for WildEarth Guardians in Chandler, Arizona; Andy Kerr is CEO of the Larch Company in Washington, D.C.