January 23, 2005
Buyout plan targets ranchers, grazing permits would be retired
By Tania Soussan
Journal Staff Writer
MONTICELLO When Darryl Sullivan's grandfather was running cattle on the
family ranch, the price he got for one calf would pay a hired hand for three
Today, Sullivan can hire a man for just four days with what he gets for a calf.
To make ends meet, he works several other jobs in Las Cruces: selling horse
trailers and livestock equipment, making custom hats, laser-leveling fields
and putting in cement irrigation ditches.
His two grown sons aren't interested in taking over the 44-Bar Ranch, south
of Socorro, that has been in the family for five generations.
"A guy just needs to make a living for his family," he said. "A
rancher and a farmer just doesn't make any money."
That's why Sullivan is eyeing a proposal backed by Santa Fe-based Forest Guardians
and other environmental groups to use taxpayer money to buy out and retire federal
land grazing leases.
"You can survive the drought and everything else, but you cannot survive
the economy," he said recently, leaning on generations-old corrals still
in use on his land. "Next year, it'll be worse, 10 years from now it'll
be worse for the rancher."
The grazing permit buyout idea won't become reality overnight, but it has been
slowly gaining momentum in Congress and among ranchers.
Groups backing the proposal sent a letter this month to 22,000 grazing permitees,
urging them to support the idea.
Federal land managers and the livestock industry oppose the grazing buyout proposal.
But ranchers like Sullivan including more than 250 in Arizona, 40 or 50
in New Mexico and others around the West are slowing but quietly coming
out to support it, proponents say.
Fourth-generation rancher John Whitney III, who holds the largest Forest Service
grazing permit in Arizona, has been an outspoken proponent of the idea and has
lobbied members of Congress in Washington, D.C.
The idea got off the ground in 2002 when the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign
a coalition of environmental groups sent a letter to permit holders across
"There's change going on in the range," said Andy Kerr, director of
the campaign. "Society has changed the rules on public-lands ranchers.
It's socially just to give these guys a golden saddle.
"The forage could be reallocated to native wildlife and watershed protection,
which is a more important use of the lands. It would save the taxpayers lots
The potential for a buyout has environmental groups that have long been at odds
with ranchers now trying to win them over as allies.
"The vision behind a permit retirement program is there is a common language
there, and the common language is money," said John Horning, executive
director of Forest Guardians.
Environmentalists say ending grazing even if only on some allotments
would be good for the land, for native wildlife and for riparian areas and watersheds.
Grazing-permit buyout programs were proposed in 2003 in national and Arizona-specific
legislation introduced by Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Rep. Raúl
Grijalva, D-Ariz., and supported by two dozen other representatives. The bills
did not pass but are expected to be reintroduced this year.
In addition, buyout provisions were included last year in an Idaho wilderness
bill introduced by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and are expected to be part of
an Oregon national monument bill.
Members of New Mexico's delegation either have not taken a position or oppose
a buyout in part because of potential negative impacts on rural communities.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said the buyout is not a sound concept.
"Ranchers already have the ability to sell out their business, which includes
valid grazing permits," he said in a statement.
But Horning argued the timing is right for a New Mexico bill perhaps targeting
the Gila country or the southwestern part of the state to be introduced
within the next two years.
Ranchers are struggling because of drought, tougher environmental requirements
for endangered species and other needs, foreign competition, encroaching development
and increased pressure from recreationists, he said.
"We simply need a few more ranchers in New Mexico to step out of the woodwork
and realize the time is now," Horning said.
The buyout would give ranchers a one-time payment based on the number of livestock
on their federal grazing permits, which they otherwise could sell or will to
heirs like other property. The land then would be permanently retired from livestock
The proposal offers ranchers $175 for each cow or cow-calf pair per month
called an animal unit month by the government on their permit, compared
with a market value in the West of $35 to $75, according to the campaign.
For example, a rancher with a permit to graze 100 cows for nine months of the
year on a Forest Service allotment would get $157,500 from the buyout.
That's a good deal for the ranchers, said Derrick Ashcraft, a neighbor of Sullivan's
who runs cattle on about 75,000 acres of private, Forest Service and Bureau
of Land Management land.
Like other Southwest ranchers, he's reduced his herd dramatically in recent
"We're still in a serious state of drought," he said. "There's
nothing to eat."
The 76-year-old native of England who landed in Monticello after years of living
in New Jersey said ranching is not financially rewarding.
He's suspicious of Forest Guardians, but wants to have the option of a buyout.
"I'm in no rush to sell," Ashcraft said as he looked across the piñon
and juniper hills from the patio of his ranch house. "I'm in no rush to
get out, but if the right opportunity came along, I probably would."
The buyout might be just that opportunity. Ashcraft has permits to graze 854
cows year-round, so he could get a $1.8 million payout.
"That ain't all bad," he said. "I'm not for it. I'm not against
it. With the option, I don't have to be. Let's have that option."
It's also a good deal for the taxpayers who would foot the bill, Kerr said.
Buying out all the federal grazing permits in the country would cost $3.1 billion.
The national bill introduced in Congress by Shays included $100 million as a
start. But the costs of administering the grazing programs are huge.
A study by University of Kentucky and BLM economists for the Tucson, Ariz.-based
Center for Biological Diversity in 2002 found that federal grazing programs
cost taxpayers and the government $128 million to $500 million a year in rangeland
management costs and in damage to public land.
Grazing fees generate about $6.9 million a year.
Ranchers pay $1.43 a month to graze a cow and calf on federal land compared
with an average of $12 on private land in the West while the government
spends about $24 to monitor and manage the allotment, according to the Public
Lands Grazing Campaign.
Helping the land
Land retired from grazing would be left for wildlife habitat, watersheds and
"This is an option that can keep the West's open spaces wild and allow
for ecological recovery on public land," Horning said.
Environmentalists argue that grazing damages the land, causes pollution and
displaces native species.
But Ashcraft, Sullivan and other ranchers don't agree that ending livestock
grazing would improve the land.
"Where are you going to find two greater environmentalists than Darryl
and I?" said Ashcraft. "I'm not going to abuse this land."
A better idea would be to put the land into a grassbank for ranchers to use
so their regular pastures could rest, Sullivan said.
Cows vs. condos
Livestock industry groups have broader fears about the proposal.
"We don't see this to be voluntary," said Caren Cowan, executive director
of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, which passed a resolution against
Cowan said government regulations that restrict ranchers can force them to do
things like take a buyout.
The Forest Service also has concerns. Janette Kaiser, the agency's national
director of rangeland management, said she could not comment on the proposed
legislation. But she said the Forest Service has been worried about loss of
open space and a need to keep ranchers on the land.
One fear is that if ranchers give up their federal allotments, they will be
more likely to get out of the livestock business and subdivide or sell their
land to developers.
But Kerr said "cows vs. condos" argument is not justified.
If there's development pressure in an area, having a federal grazing permit
won't stop a rancher from selling. In fact, the buyout might give ranchers enough
cash to ease the financial pressure to sell their private land, Kerr said.
That might be how it works for Sullivan, who is building a house in Monticello
and intends to stay in the area.
He has 7,000 acres of deeded land in the rolling country north of town along
with permits to run livestock on 7,680 acres of Forest Service land and 1,920
acres each of BLM and state trust land.
Sullivan said that if he took the buyout, he would continue ranching on his
private land and use the payout to invest in apartments or other real estate.
"You've got income while you're sleeping," he said.