Mar 7th 2002
From The Economist print edition
Is there an alternative to expensive grazing subsidies?
HERE'S what it takes to fulfil the conditions for a federal land-grazing permit.
Buy some cattle. Buy a branding iron. Brand the cows. Truck the cattle to the
federally-owned land that you have leased. Let them mooch around for ten minutes
or so, then load them back into the truck. Sell the cattle. Sell the branding
This, in fact, is precisely what an Idaho-based conservation group plans to
do in order to comply with the bewildering grazing regulations of the United
States Forest Service. The Western Watersheds Project, whose aim is to restore
wet riparian habitat to the west's arid state- and federal-owned lands, bought
a ranch that came with a 40,000-acre grazing allotment on the Challis National
Forest in Idaho. The group argued that the location in the Salmon River watershed
made it a prime habitat for wildlife, and far too valuable to waste on grazing.
But the Forest Service refused. It insisted that, in order to validate its permit,
Western Watersheds must continue to use the land for grazing.
For years, environmental groups have been trying to reduce the number of cattle grazing on the 270m acres of land owned by the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). But the efforts of grazers' lobbying groups and politically-connected landed families have seen to it that federal regulations remain pretty much intact. The average charge for federal land is $1.43 per animal unit month, or AUM (ie, the amount of forage needed to sustain a cow and a calf for one month). On private land it is closer to $11.
Water, water nowhere
Very slowly, however, the balance has tilted. In the endless battles over enforcing
the 1973 Endangered Species Act, it has become clear that riparian zones in
the west need protection from livestock. These streams and wetland areas occupy
less than 1% of the surface area of federally-owned western lands. Yet few creatures,
large or small, can survive without them. Even stockmen, who hate the act, have
grudgingly come to realise that retiring grazing leases is preferable to waging
costly environmental battles in court-all the more so as green groups are prepared
to buy them out of those leases.
Such buyouts make particularly good sense for federal grazing leases in national
parks and recreation areas (which are exempted from the usual land-use conditions).
In 1996, Congress allowed permit-holders in the Great Basin National Park in
Nevada to donate their grazing permits to the Park Service (and deduct the money
from their tax bills). In 1999, three permit-holders within Mt Moriah Wilderness,
also in Nevada, retired their leases in exchange for compensation from a number
of conservation foundations.
Perhaps no group has been more successful in arranging the retirement of leases
than the Grand Canyon Trust. Most of its conservation work is in the Colorado
plateau, home to the greatest concentration of national parks and monuments
in the country. Since 1996, the trust has retired about 750,000 acres of federal
grazing leases. The trust pays a one-time fee-on average about $75 per AUM-to
take the lease out of circulation, more or less permanently. Bill Hedden, a
conservation director at the trust, stresses that agreement among all parties
is essential to brokering a successful deal. "Generally, the rancher comes
to us. We don't go to him." They also need the Forest Service and the BLM
to agree that grazing on the allotment is not in the public interest.
Since late 2001 a consortium of conservationist groups called the National
Public Lands Grazing Campaign has taken the debate to another level. Developing
an idea that has been under discussion by environmental groups for several years,
they want the federal government to buy out permit-holders for $175 per AUM.
If all 27,000 public-land ranchers were willing to sell up, it would cost the
federal government $1.5 billion. A rancher in charge of 300 head of cattle would
stand to make around $262,500. This may seem generous, but federal grazing subsidies
currently cost taxpayers upwards of $460m every year. Within four years, it
would look like a good deal.
Grazing, along with hard-rock mining, represents the last bastion of government-subsidised
extraction of commodities from public lands. The American taxpayer deserves
a viable alternative.