April 12, 2004
Grazing-Permit Buyout Would Help Lands and Ranchers
By Justin Baca
National Public Lands Grazing Campaign
The contentious saga of New Mexico rancher Kit Laney points to all that is wrong
with public lands ranching in the arid West.
Laney is the Catron County rancher who defied Forest Service directives and
a federal court order to remove his cattle from federal land for overgrazing
the Gila National Forest. He was arrested and indicted on eight federal charges.
The U.S. Supreme Court has long held that livestock grazing on public lands
is not a right but a revocable privilege.
While Laney's misguided beliefs and actions are not representative of public-lands
ranchers in the West, he is not alone in his economic plight.
His case sets in bold relief the state of emergency that now exists for ranchers
who rely on drought-stricken public lands of the West to support them.
Across the West, drought, environmental regulations, litigation and conflicts
with other public uses have led to reductions in grazing on public lands. Conditions
even worse than those of 2003 are predicted for the next three years. Beef markets
are changing, and public-lands ranchers feel the pinch.
John Whitney III, a fourth-generation rancher who holds the largest U.S. Forest
Service grazing permit in Arizona, is one of them. Whitney's 158,000-acre Sunflower
allotment in Tonto National Forest northeast of Phoenix has been closed for
three years due to drought. Since 1996, grazing in the Tonto, which comprises
3 million acres, has been cut by 94 percent of the maximum permitted level.
Whitney explains: "The whole situation has changed down here with new restrictions
and recreation just going through the roof. It's got to the point where I really
need to move my operation to somewhere more suitable. But I have so much invested
here. I really should get something back."
There is a solution to the plight of public-lands ranchers. Reps. Christopher
Shays, R-Conn., Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., have introduced the Voluntary
Grazing Permit Buyout Act and the Arizona Voluntary Grazing Permit Buyout Act.
Both bills would compensate public lands ranchers who choose to relinquish their
federal grazing permits.
American taxpayers pay about $500 million annually to subsidize grazing on 257
million acres of public lands (grazing fees return to the Treasury only $7 million).
The buyout bills would not only provide a safety net for cash-strapped public-lands
ranchers, they would produce enormous savings by reducing the need for this
This would not be the first time Congress has acted on such a proposal. Last
November, 80 percent of the U.S. House of Representatives, including New Mexico
Reps. Heather Wilson and Tom Udall, voted overwhelmingly to reform our national
flood insurance program.
The reforms comes as a plan to essentially buy out "multiple loss properties"-
which flood repeatedly and account for about $200 million per year in damages-
and build a new structure on safer ground. This will eventually save hundreds
of millions in tax revenue and give families ravaged by flooding a road to safety.
Those public-lands ranchers who opt for the buyout would be paid generously
for their grazing permits. The compensation would allow them to restructure
their business on private lands, transition to another business, pay off loans
Under both bills, the public lands allotments associated with bought-out grazing
permits would be permanently retired from commercial livestock grazing, freeing
the land for alternative uses including recreation, hunting, fishing, wildlife
conservation and watershed management.
We no longer live in the Old West. Time magazine estimates that 328,000 ranchers
and farmers will lose their jobs in this decade alone. The scenario facing the
24,000 ranchers who operate on the most marginal lands (typically public lands)
in the 21st century is bleak and getting bleaker.
The legislation is a win-win solution for permittees, taxpayers and the environment.
A voluntary grazing buyout program would heal the land as well as the wounds
of ranchers caught in a box like Laney, with nowhere to turn for relief as the
sun sets on public lands ranching in the West.
Baca, an Albuquerque native and son of former Mayor Jim Baca, is the Washington,
D.C., representative for the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign (www.publiclandsranching.org)