Environmentalists Propose Grazing Lease Buyout

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, April 10, 2002 (ENS) - A coalition of conservation groups has adopted an unusual strategy for reducing the impact of livestock grazing on public lands. In a letter sent this week to 25,000 public lands ranchers, the coalition is seeking support for a proposed buyout of public lands leases that would pay ranchers to keep their animals off of national forests and grasslands.

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In the United States, grazing has contributed to the demise of 22 percent of federal threatened and endangered species. (Photo by Scott Bauer, courtesy Agricultural Research Service)
The letter from the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign (NPLGC) argues that a proposed federal compensation proposal could save ranchers from dire economic times, a losing occupation and a vanishing way of life.

"Environmental conflicts with domestic livestock grazing are increasing, not going away," the letter states. "We propose to compensate permittees who are willing to relinquish their permits as the obvious way to eliminate this barrier to better resource protection."

The NPLGC proposes that Congress establish a buyout program to compensate grazing permittees who voluntarily relinquish their public lands leases. The plan has been endorsed by 85 environmental groups nationwide.

"To protect endangered species and protect water quality on public lands, the federal government encourages citizens to sue violators, even the government itself," said Andy Kerr, director of the NPLGC. "The 'stick' approach is important, but environmentalists also want the government to implement the 'carrot' approach."

The NPLGC proposal would pay federal permittees more than twice market rate to voluntarily relinquish their grazing permits. The average market value in the West of a federal animal unit month (AUM) is $50 to $75. The new proposal would compensate permittees at a fixed price of $175 per AUM.

Under the plan, a permittee with 300 cow and calf pairs that graze public lands for five months of the year would receive upwards of $262,000.

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A herd of cattle is driven to winter range near Paisley, Oregon. (Photo by Doug Wilson, courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture)
The NPLGC plan would retire what the coalition calls a "federal welfare program" that now costs taxpayers about $500 million each year in subsidized public lands ranching operations. It would also diminish decades of environmental destruction wrought by livestock grazing, the NPLGC argues.

"I've often thought the livestock industry would be better served without public lands grazing," said an Idaho cattle rancher, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Whenever you subsidize an industry, as in the case of livestock grazing on federal lands, you create inefficiency. You paint a false picture of demand for the product."

"An awful lot of demands have been put on our public lands, and grazing might be the biggest," said the former federal grazing permittee, who gave up his federal permits several years ago. "It's time we gave these lands some consideration."

Scientific studies show that livestock grazing is one of the most pervasive and destructive uses of federal lands in the West. Livestock grazing threatens native species, reduces water quality, spreads noxious weeds, alters natural fire regimes and accelerates soil erosion, destroying streamside and upland ecosystems.

About 80 percent of all streams and riparian ecosystems in the arid West have been degraded by livestock grazing. Some 175 plant and animal species, from sage grouse to grizzly bears, are threatened or endangered, all or in part, by grazing on federal rangelands.

In 1999 alone, 95,862 wild animals were killed by the U.S. Department of Agriculturešs Wildlife Services in predator control programs to protect livestock.

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Cattle grazing on dry pasture in the Great Plains in Colorado (Photo by Scott Bauer, courtesy Agricultural Research Service)
In its Global 2000 report, the White House Council on Environmental Quality noted that "improvident grazing . . . has been the most potent desertification force, in terms of total acreage (351,562 square miles) within the United States."

The economic picture for grazing permittees on public lands is no more optimistic, the NPLGC warns. A recent study cited in the "Journal of Range Management" concludes that ranching operations "had a return rate that ranged from negative to one or two percent."

Citing figures showing that beef produced from federal rangelands accounts for less than three percent of total production in the United States, the NPLGC argues that low productivity from public lands grazing, coupled with cheap imported beef, are putting a financial squeeze on federal permittees across the country.

The Bureau of Land Management's 1994 report "Rangeland Reform" noted that only three percent of livestock producers in the United States hold federal grazing permits. As recently as 1999, public lands ranching accounted for just .04 percent of all income and .06 percent of all employment in the West.

Public lands grazing costs American taxpayers upwards of half a billion dollars every year in direct program costs. Related expenses for emergency feed, drought and flood relief, predator control and other costs to support grazing or mitigate its impacts are not included in this figure.

Federal grazing lands comprise 257 million acres in the U.S. Under current law, public lands permittees are not compensated when allotments are closed to protect natural resources. No property rights are vested in federal grazing permits; the permits are revocable privileges.

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Beef cattle being herded to new grazing lands. (Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture)
Under the NPLGC proposal, compensating all federal grazing permittees at a rate of $175 per AUM would initially cost taxpayers about $3.3 billion. The net savings of the program would be between $5.5 billion and $11 billion, the NPLGC says.

"Federal grazing permit buyouts are ecologically imperative, economically rational, fiscally prudent, socially compassionate and politically pragmatic," said Kerr. "It's a win win win for permittees, taxpayers and the environment."

Kerr says the NPLGC proposal will likely get a better response from public lands cattle industry members than from industry leaders. The NPLGC letter asks individual ranchers to contact their industry leaders and the Congress members to express support for the buyout proposal.

"Because public lands grazing is increasingly problematic, we anticipate that a lot of permittees will want to take a buyout," Kerr said. "Public lands grazing industry leaders, because they are leaders, tend to be more psychologically, socially and financially invested and are generally reluctant about providing a voluntary buyout for those they lead."

The NPLGC includes the American Lands Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, Committee for Idahošs High Desert, Forest Guardians, Oregon Natural Desert Association and Western Watersheds Project.

More information about the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign is available at: http://www.publiclandsranching.org