February 15, 2004
Arizona Daily Star
Grazing land buyouts: Conservationists, ranchers come together on a plan that
appeals to all
By Raúl M. Grijalva
SPECIAL TO THE ARIZONA DAILY STAR
A long-standing conflict between Arizona ranchers and conservationists is nearing
a resolution, but the final step -gaining congressional approval - will be a formidable
More than 180 Arizona ranchers, headed by the John Whitney III family of Sunflower,
and 10 conservation, hunting and other interest groups, headed by the Center for
Biological Diversity, have negotiated an innovative plan.
The plan would permanently retire some federal land from grazing and return it
to recreational and natural uses. In exchange, the plan would compensate participating
ranchers for the retirement of their livestock permits at a rate above fair market
The cooperation between the two groups, and the ground-breaking plan they have
created, have paved the way for the bipartisan Arizona Voluntary Grazing Permit
Buyout Act, which I introduced late last year with the co-sponsorship of Congressman
Christopher Shays of Connecticut, a Republican.
Other representatives from California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts,
New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington have signed on as cosponsors, and
it is my hope that all of Arizona's delegation will follow suit.
A similar bill covering the entire nation has been introduced, but I propose the
Arizona plan as a pilot. If it works in Arizona, it will be easy to expand.
This moment is truly historic. Two sides of a divisive issue came together to
solve a problem many believed unsolvable. Each party understood the other's needs
and exhibited the patience required to talk out a possible solution.
Martin Taylor, of the Center for Biological Diversity, said, "We decided
to stick with what we can agree upon. We set aside the things we can't agree on."
A plethora of variables were at play. Environmentalists argued that the public
land should be reserved for wildlife and low-impact recreational use. They pointed
to government research showing that grazing erodes the soil and reduces habitat
for native wildlife.
At the same time, ranchers have found it tougher and tougher to earn a living.
Americans have been eating less beef and more chicken; a prolonged drought has
meant cattle had to be removed from much of the range, and Canadian beef imports
have increased following adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
More than 96 percent of U.S. beef production is on nonfederal lands, and cattle
ranchers on public lands must compete with large feedlot operations.
The grazing permit buyout program would allow renewal of the land, making it friendlier
to wildlife, natural growth and other environmentally sound uses. It would allow
ranchers to restructure their operations or start a new business without being
driven from what for many has been the family home for generations.
Some critics have contended that ranchers who release their grazing permits would
be more likely to sell their private ranchlands, but private property owners can
do that at any time.
The permit buyout could strengthen a rancher's financial hand by allowing bank
loans to be repaid and private property to be retained. The current economic situation
is already forcing many ranchers to sell or subdivide to pay off their bank loans,
causing land fragmentation and forcing ranchers from their private lands.
Participation in the program would be entirely voluntary. All 950 Arizona permit
holders would qualify for payments of $175 per animal unit month.
For example, a rancher who grazes 200 head of cattle 12 months a year would be
entitled to a one-time payment of $420,000.
Members of the sponsoring coalition predict about 25 percent of Arizona ranchers
would opt to take the buyout at a cost of $93 million. If all permit holders took
the buyout, the total would be about $371 million.
Compare that to the $233 billion price tag of the recent U.S. farm bill (this
covers the years 2002-2006).
Consider also that comparable programs have been made available to tobacco and
peanut farmers, while cotton farmers once were paid not to farm so the soil could
And the Conservation Reserve Program, which allows Midwestern grassland farmers
to rest their private farmland in exchange for payment per acre, has obvious environmental
Taxpayers would achieve significant savings if the buyout succeeds on a national
level. The grazing program runs a $124 million annual deficit because the fees
are about 10 percent of the market rates, and the program creates otherwise unnecessary
expenses to deal with the impacts of livestock on the environment.
The buyout benefits are more than worth the comparatively low cost. Public land
will be conserved, ranchers will be kept from bankruptcy, and the federal government
will save money.
* Democrat Raúl M. Grijalva is a U.S. congressman from Arizona.