October 25, 2003

Arizona Daily Star

Buyout of ranchers proposed: Plan pulls cattle from public lands

by Tony Davis


If you can't beat 'em, buy 'em out. Or sell.

Weary of a half-century of grazing conflicts, environmentalists are pushing new proposals to pay off ranchers who want out of their permits to run cattle on public lands. Equally weary, some Arizona ranchers are climbing on board to support the effort.

Bills introduced this week in Congress would offer up to $100 million in rancher payouts as a test of the feasibility of a voluntary buyout program.

One bill would affect only Arizona, where the buyout effort has been centered. The other would open the federal financial tap to all public-lands ranchers in the West.

Reps. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., and Christopher Shays, R-Conn., are co-sponsoring the bills. Organizers of the buyout campaign in Arizona say they have collected cards from 170 Arizona ranchers, including 40 from Southern Arizona, in support of the buyout, out of more than 800 Arizona ranchers surveyed.

The offer would be sweet for ranchers and pricey for taxpayers: $3.2 billion nationally if all public-lands ranchers in the West accepted the offer. Environmentalists say the federal government would make that up in a little more than five years by dispensing with the costs of federal grazing regulatory and subsidy programs.

A rancher who accepts a buyout would collect $175 for each month out of a year that each of his cattle was permitted to browse on federal property. Current estimates are that ranchers get $40 to $110 when they sell permits to other ranchers on the open private market.

Eldon Barney supports the buyout.

He and his wife, both in their mid-70s, live in Pomerene northeast of Benson and ranch on Forest Service land outside Alpine. They have watched their allowable cattle numbers drop over 30 years from 148 on one permit to 10 on a second permit.

"We've summered cattle up there for 20 years. We started at seven months a year. Now, we're cut down to three months and we haven't been able to run cattle for three years" because of drought, Barney said this week.

Martin Taylor, of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, one of 10 environmental groups backing the bill, said it would be a "win-win-win: a win for wildlife because of the resolution of these conflicts with grazing, a win for ranchers because they get something back for what they invested and a win for the taxpayers."

The Arizona Cattle Growers Association is opposing the bill, in part because it contends that the bill's language would force cancellation of any federal grazing permit whenever a rancher wanted to sell to another rancher - even if the federal government didn't buy him out. [Note: this is incorrect - there is no provision in the voluntary grazing permit buyout legislation (H.R. 3324, H.R. 3337) that affects the transfer of grazing permits/leases from rancher to rancher.]

"We already know the wildfire problem is caused by an incredible number of bad decisions over the last 50 years," said "Doc" Lane, the cattlegrowers' natural resources director. "This one may well be just as bad a decision, and the environmental community says you can always go back to Congress and change it."

Taylor disputed Lane's interpretation of the proposal, saying that is not Grijalva's or Shays' intent.

John Whitney III, a rancher north of Phoenix, has spearheaded this effort in Arizona.

Whitney's family has leased Forest Service land roughly halfway between Phoenix and Payson since 1904. He hasn't kept cattle on it since 2000, when the service ordered their removal because of drought.

Whitney pulled 87 percent of the cattle off in four months. But because he couldn't get them all off in that time, the service permanently cut his herd of 1,250 by 50 percent, he said.

All-terrain and other recreational vehicles from Phoenix tearing up the landscape has been another problem, Whitney said.

"You can have as many as 1,500 ATV groups in one camp," said Whitney. "They go wherever they want."I've got 35 years in this thing. If there's problems because of the market or drought I can deal with that. But if they won't regulate the recreation where we can survive out there, they've created an environment where we can't do business anymore."

Whitney said, however, that if the bill becomes law, he would expect some ranchers whose permits aren't bought out to seek federal compensation if the Forest Service tried to cut their allowable cattle numbers for reasons such as the presence of endangered species. [
Note: provisions in the the voluntary permit buyout legislation (H.R. 3324, H.R. 3337) prohibit ranchers from making such claims.]

Joe Feller, an Arizona State University law professor and an environmentalist, said he doesn't think a rancher would have a legal right to such compensation, because federal courts have repeatedly refused to rule that grazing is a property right.

But as a practical matter, a rancher could argue that it's not fair to reduce his numbers without compensation when another rancher is paid for a full buyout, said Feller, who has taught public lands law. [
Note: provisions in the the voluntary permit buyout legislation (H.R. 3324, H.R. 3337) prohibit ranchers from making such claims.]