January 22, 2003

Headwaters News

Voluntary grazing buyout program gains backers, expected to appear soon as proposed legislation

Keith Raether

As the 108th session of Congress unfolds, the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign is preparing to announce congressional co-sponsors of legislation that would pay ranchers to remove their cattle from public lands.

In the meantime, several congressional leaders have already mulled the proposal and voiced their support.

At a conference organized last spring by the Idaho Conservation League, U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) called the buyout a "win-win" proposal for conservationists and ranchers.

"If we get together and collaborate, we can get results that are higher for the environment and higher for the economy ... and everybody wins," Crapo said.

The National Public Lands Grazing Campaign is a progressive plan to end abusive livestock grazing on America¹s public lands. Part and parcel of the campaign is a proposal to adopt through federal legislation a voluntary buyout program that would compensate public lands ranchers in exchange for their federal livestock grazing leases.

The proposal was introduced to 26,000 public lands ranchers in April 2002. It is endorsed by more than 120 conservation groups, including the Sierra Club.

"The Sierra Club considers the voluntary livestock grazing permit retirement legislation a great opportunity for Congress to help ranchers and the land," said Wayne Hoskisson, chairman of the club¹s national grazing committee. "This is a simple step which allows struggling ranchers a chance to get out of public lands grazing without horrendous economic consequences.

"At the same time, some of the most marginally productive rangelands will be given the chance once again to have natural processes regulate the web of life in these truly beautiful places."

In September, the buyout plan went to Washington, D.C. There, campaign staff and other progressive conservationists from the West assessed with members of Congress the damage done by public lands ranching and discussed an egalitarian solution: a generous, voluntary federal grazing permit buyout.

While the voluntary buyout campaign advances at the federal level, advocates are also allying with permittees in various states to develop site-specific buyouts.

In Arizona, a coalition of public lands ranchers and the Center for Biological Diversity, one of six campaign steering committee groups, has formed the Arizona Grazing Permit Buyout Campaign. The coalition has also been to Washington, D.C., to educate and work with congressional leaders.

In New Mexico, Forest Guardians and a core group of 15 public lands grazing permittees are collaborating on a voluntary buyout campaign. They plan to present the program to members of the New Mexico congressional delegation.

Western Watersheds Project and the Committee for the High Desert in Idaho have circulated a letter about voluntary, site-specific buyouts to permittees in Owyhee County.

The Oregon Natural Desert Association in Oregon is working with a grazing permittee to attach a provision to the proposed Badlands Wilderness bill. Under the proviso, permittees would receive compensation from a third party for permanent retirement of grazing allotments inside the wilderness boundary.

The national campaign has received calls from several permittees in western Colorado who are interested in permit buyout. The campaign will also pursue an opportunity to retire the last remaining grazing permit in Death Valley National Park.

Meanwhile, the BLM in Utah recently decided in favor of the Grand Canyon Trust in its campaign to purchase grazing permits on a "willing buyer, willing seller" basis from ranchers near Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. To date, the trust has paid more than $1.5 million to monument-area ranchers in exchange for their grazing permits.

Domestic livestock graze more than 400,000 square miles of federal public lands. In the West, one cow and calf need an average of nearly 14 acres per month to feed themselves on arid public lands. In the East, the same cow-calf pair requires one-sixth of an acre of average private farmland for forage.

Federal public lands produce only 2 percent of the nation¹s total livestock feed and beef. Contributions from public lands grazing to state and local economies are minuscule.

The National Public Lands Grazing Campaign initiative would effectively retire a federal welfare program that costs American taxpayers more than $500 million annually to subsidize public lands ranching operations.

The buyout program would cost $2.9 billion but save between $5.7 billion and $9.9 billion over the long term.

Moreover, adoption of the voluntary buyout would diminish decades of environmental destruction caused by livestock grazing. As a former public lands rancher in Idaho recently allowed, "An awful lot of demands have been put on our public lands, and grazing might be the biggest. It¹s time we gave these lands some consideration."

Cash-strapped ranchers deserve consideration as well. While ranching is a cherished lifestyle for many federal grazing permittees, most heirs to the operation don¹t want or can¹t afford to continue the tradition.

A public lands rancher who runs 3,000-plus head of cattle in southern Utah believes the voluntary buyout is "a humane way of taking care of a tough situation." He added that "most people I know in this business would relish getting out if they could do it with dignity and some cash in hand."

As the cost of ranching continues to increase, the capital value of federal grazing permits continues to decline. The campaign proposal would pay federal permittees four times market value to relinquish their grazing permits.

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

The federal buyout program is a safety net for public lands ranchers and an environmental imperative in the arid West. It would stanch the economic bleeding, allowing ranchers to recapitalize investments otherwise stranded in grazing permits.

And it would heal the land. It is a rare event in the American socio-political arena: a campaign that produces no losers.

For more information about the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, visit www.publiclandsranching.org.

The Arizona Grazing Permit Buyout Campaign also has a website. Visit www.azbuyout.org for more information.

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Keith Raether is public information coordinator for the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign.