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Cover Story October 11th, 2007

  Untitled Document


by lyle e davis

More and more cattle ranchers are gazing out over the cactus and cottonwood covered valleys where they have grazed cattle for 50 years or more at little cost . . . and wondering where their future lies.

The scenic rural settlements of windmills, barbed-wire, and pickup trucks are showing a bit of anxiety these days as a combination of forces seek to implode the lifestyle they’ve come to love. And love it they should. For years they’ve enjoyed low cost grazing rights on governmental lands. Now, angry taxpayers and environmental groups are seeking to change the law.

Cattle grazing on public lands in the West has not always been an issue between different segments of society. Until recently, cattle grazing on public lands in the West was undisputed, a natural part of the culture of the West. Cowboys, Indians, tumbleweeds and cows were the first thoughts to most people's minds when thinking of the western United States. The picture is no longer so clear. For the last couple of decades, a battle has been raging between cattle ranchers and environmentalists. The battle is characterized by mistrust and misunderstanding by both environmentalists and cattle ranchers. The two views are to a large extent, irreconcilable, but there is room for compromise. The battle between these views has rarely been friendly, and has often been fierce. It is a battle fought in American public range policy

At issue, in part, is the low range fees charged. Some allege it is a flat-out giveaway. Ranchers pay $1.61 per AUM (Animal Unit Month). Translated from government speak, that means if you have 100 cattle, and you have a government least on 1000 acres, your cost of grazing rights amounts to $163 per month, or less than $19567 per year.

Recently, a New Mexico-based environmental group, Forest Guardians, offered about $2000 per year for 162 acres of prime, state owned grazing land near Elgin, Arizona. They outbid a local rancher who had used the land for years as grazing land. The group plans to restore the picturesque riverside habitat. It marked the first time in Arizona that nonranchers have been allowed to compete for coveted state grazing leases. Said the rancher who lost out on the bidding, "They're just going to make it too expensive to ranch anymore," he says. "And that's exactly what the environmentalists want."

The Background

Before the turn of the ninteenth century, cattle roamed freely on the ranges of the American West. The fences that now characterize the western rangeland were all but nonexistent.

For the first ten years after the grazing fee was established on BLM land, the fee was the cost of administration of the grazing lands, five cents per Animal Unit Month (AUM). On Forest Service land, the price depended upon livestock prices. Federal lands are leased far below fair market value even today. This is due mainly to political pressure wielded by ranching interest groups.

Some percentages of federal land in western states follow: Arizona 45%, Idaho 61%, Nevada 79%, Utah 60% New Mexico 33%, and Montana 30%. Many resource users say that with this much land under governmental control, their businesses can't grow. The cattlemen and cattle interest groups are, in general, highly vocal players in the issue of cattle grazing on public lands. Cattle ranchers are consistently present at public meetings where laws or regulations concerning cattle ranching are going to be discussed. Ranchers and cattle interest groups also often express their opinions to their elected official and to government officials in general. Cattle interest groups also make campaign contributions to people running for office who share the views of the cattle industry. The National Cattlemen Association (NCA) is one of the more powerful and vocal of these groups. The NCA has often had a significant impact on government decisions concerning the cattle industry in general, and grazing on public lands specifically.

As one might expect, these groups often advocate government non-interference. In general, they see regulations imposed by the government as interfering in an area the ranchers know more about than the government. To a certain extent, they are right. Governmental regulations also often reduce the profit margin of the cattle industry. No one likes to see their cash flow reduced.

Environmentalists often do not have the economic "pull" of cattle interest groups, and elected officials, ultimately, need money to get reelected. It has been well established that usually economics rule politics.

Cattle grazing in the western United States has a history that goes back almost as far as white settlement in the West. History has shown on numerous occasions that tradition dies hard. The cattle ranching tradition is certainly no exception to this generality. An argument often used by ranchers to try to protect their trade when it is threatened is that their family has been ranching for generations, and that it's important to keep that tradition alive.

The main problem many environmentalists have with cattle grazing is that cattle are a non-native species to the environments in which they roam. Much of the cattle came originally from Texas, in the form of the Longhorn. The Texas Longhorn was left behind by Spanish missionaries, who left the Longhorns to run wild. The quality of the Longhorn stock was poor, but the cattle proved to be prolific. Left to fend for themselves in the wild, Longhorn numbers skyrocketed. In 1830, it was estimated that there was 100,000 head of cattle in Texas. By 1860, an estimated 3.5 million head roamed the Texas rangelands. It was during the late 1830's that cowboys started herding the wild cattle to other states to be sold. Perhaps the best description of cattle ranching in the West was J. Frank Dobie’s remark that, "after the Civil War all it took to become a cattleman in Texas was a rope, the nerve to use it, and a branding iron."

Since cattle are non-natives, their impact on the environment is greater than native species like elk and deer. Cattle have not evolved in the ecosystems in which they have been placed, and therefore they do not co-exist with those ecosystems well. Whereas deer and elk are highly mobile foragers, cattle are stagnant foragers. What this means is that deer and elk move around so much that they do not overgraze an area or cause soil damage. Cattle on the other hand, will often remain in the same area until they have eaten all or most of the edible material there. Only after most of the vegetation has been eaten will they move on. Cattle also need more forage than elk or deer.

Government agencies have the dubious job of trying to please everyone. This is of course impossible. Agencies have to listen to ranchers, ranching groups, environmentalists, environmental advocates, other government agencies, and all three branches of the U.S. government. Individuals and interest groups have some degree of direct influence on government agencies, but the primary incentive operating on government agencies is funding.

Without funding, government agencies aren't government agencies, or at least they are not effective agencies. To get funding, government agencies appeal to Congress and the office of the President. These two entities have pressures of their own. Industry and environmental groups pressure individuals in the legislative and executive branch to vote in their group’s favor. Often this pressure involves campaign contributions. In this process, democracy is not always served. An interest group may represent few people, but have more money. It is unfortunate that in these matters, money talks. He who talks, has power. The situation is still far more complex than that though.

The primary incentives are money and maintaining a lifestyle. In the case of corporate cattle operations, money is the dominant incentive. Cattle ranching on public lands can yield good incomes. For smaller, private cattle operations, money is still certainly a factor. Ranching is their job, and they fight to keep that job just as anyone else in any other job would fight to keep it. Family ranchers tend to see their fight to be able to continue to ranch on public lands as a fight to maintain their way of life. They see themselves as maintaining a great heritage of the American West. It is their duty to uphold that heritage.

That rancher may be right. Western public-lands ranchers have long been targeted by environmental groups, who claim that cattle grazing destroys ecosystems, isn't competitive with Midwestern factory farms, and only survives through government subsidies.

But now, after years of fighting ranchers over stewardship of public lands in the courts, local public hearings, and statehouses, environmentalists are turning to their wallets at auctions. Their approach may be summed up as: 'If you can't beat 'em, outbid 'em.'

State-trust lands used for grazing at a nominal fee cost is as old as the west. Granted in territorial times by the federal government to help fund schools, trust lands are required to generate maximum revenues - a requirement that environmentalists argue should lead to leases being awarded to the highest bidder. Arizona's Supreme Court agreed and, subsequently, the State Land Department awarded the Elgin-area parcel to Forest Guardians.

In the Forest Guardians' case, the group targeted their limited funds on Arizona's most attractive trust lands. "We're focused on getting the biggest biological gain for our buck, and in this case, it involves a nice perennial stream and well-forested area," says John Horning, the group's director.

The case dated from 1997, when a coalition of environmentalists and hunters were initially rebuffed in efforts to bid on leases for several parcels of state trust land designated for grazing. The would-be bidders intended to clear the land of cattle in order to repair damage that they alleged had been caused by grazing.

Said the dejected rancher who lost his grazing rights, “The environmentalists wanted that land and they got it," he says bitterly. "Now they're going to try to take all of it. And once they get it, that's the end of ranching, period."

Still, the group's success may not be duplicated in other Western states. For example, Oregon and California have already sold off most of their trust lands.

But there are permits for state trust lands . . . and there are permits for federally owned land, usually administered by either BLM (Bureau of Land Management) or the Forest Service. There are proposals before Congress presently to buy out the rancher’s permits at a proposed value of $175 per AUM (Animal Units per Month). Environmentalist, who are pushing the legislation, argue that the government loses half a billion dollars every year just managing the system. As the number of permits are dropped, the need to manage them, and the associated management costs, drop as well.

But breaking the ranchers' stranglehold on public lands isn't easy, says Jon Marvel, director of the Western Watersheds Project, an Idaho-based group that is part of the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, a coalition that lobbies against public-lands ranching.

"What we have across the West is a political problem, where the 'lords of yesterday' have been in charge a long time, are accustomed to being in charge, have never seen a free market that they like, and would prefer to prevent market forces from affecting their continued control over most of the land in the west - public, state, and private."

Ranching groups hold positions closer to the average cattle rancher. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association isn't pressuring its 30,000 members to oppose the buyout proposal, "we don't support a federal policy that would encourage the dismantling of the infrastructure needed for ranching out West," says Jeff Eisenberg, the group's director of federal lands.


For a rancher with 300 head of cattle, the program would offer about $260,000 to retire grazing permits on federal property owned by agencies such as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. If all of the 27,000 ranchers on federal lands accepted the buy-out, it could cost the government up to $1.5 billion. But environmentalists counter that subsidizing ranching through below-market grazing fees and other costs already carries a yearly price tag of roughly $460 million.

The buyout proposal would probably attract many ranchers weary of an ongoing drought and fluctuating market prices. The market-based approach is driving some of the industry's allies into a corner, says Donald Leal of the Political Economy Research Center, a Montana group that advocates a property-rights solutions for the environment. Conservatives wholly support free markets, "unless it involves ranching," he says. "Then they do a turnaround, and start arguing for government intervention."

The ranching and economic perspectives usually go hand in hand on the public lands grazing issue. Whenever ranchers are threatened with a grazing fee increase, they becry the economic impact on themselves, and on the community in which they live. In a survey of ranchers, "Respondents reported that they spend about $19,000 annually in local communities . . ." In the same survey, when asked what they would do if prohibitions were put on public grazing, 21% reported they would retire, 16% reported they would find a new occupation, and 21% reported a conversion of their private land to development. It should be noted here that 57% reported they would decrease the size of their operation, and 9% reported that they would move to another state.

Few would argue that the grazing fees are so low that they amount to a subsidy. Where the dispute arises is just how much ranchers are subsidized and the issue of subsidies based on necessity. There does seem to be a simple solution to the problem of cattle grazing on public lands. The solution, simply, is to raise the grazing fee. In reality, the grazing fee affects so few cattle ranchers that raising the fee would only marginally affect the cattle industry. Raising the grazing fee would actually help a majority of cattle ranchers because they are currently being undercut by those ranchers who can make a larger profit on subsidized government land. Not only this, but the government would save tens of millions of dollars in the process.

It is only a matter of time before the grazing fee will be increased. The new political fad is to cut as many government expenditures as possible. Eventually the debate will reach a critical point where cattle ranchers will have to answer some tough questions. Eventually, the sacred cow of cattle grazing on public lands will suffer the fate of other government subsidies. The only question is when it will happen.





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