December 2, 2001

Los Angeles Times

A Showdown Over Western Range Rights
Reform of the vast grazing program on federal lands is long overdue

John Balzar

It began with a high bid of $30. That was eight years ago. Eventually it may spell the end of one the most storied epochs in American history and usher in another that's more in tune with the times.

That's because this small cash offer forced a very expensive question: What are Western range lands worth--those 270-million acres of public property now leased by ranchers to produce 3% of the nation's beef and lamb?

The answer, as demonstrated by that first bid and others that followed, seems to be that these public lands are worth more than ranchers can pay, or at least are willing to pay. Which is good news for conservationists and taxpayers. We've been getting a raw deal for years.

Ever since the 1930s, raising livestock in much of the West has been a partnership between us and the cowboy-rancher. We, the public, are the silent partners in the Western cattle and sheep business, leasing our public lands for grazing. These lands, scattered across 11 Western states, comprise an area 11/2 times as big as Texas. The trouble is, the partnership has become one-sided. Ranchers view grazing leases as virtual deeds to state and federal lands, never mind that the real title is held in your name and mine. Government officials who administer these grazing leases have come to regard things pretty much as the ranchers do.

You see, we're not talking about business but, as the cowboy sees it, a way of life. All of us are expected to sacrifice for the sake of old-time public-lands ranching. Thus, grazing fees are absurdly low. On federal lands, for instance, a rancher can graze a cow and calf for a full month for the price of a can of dog food. Despite these bargain rates, or maybe because of them, too much of their range land has been mistreated, overgrazed, beaten down and polluted. As a final insult, government overhead to administer these leases, including the costs of battling coyotes and other predators, far exceeds what ranchers pay--meaning that the whole system is one large taxpayer subsidy for the Stetson hat crowd.

So along comes Jon Marvel, backed by $30 and a little research. Marvel lives in Idaho. In that state, grazing permits come up for auction every 10 years. In January 1994, Marvel was high bidder for rights to a 640-acre parcel of state property. His idea was to rest the land, keep livestock off. The rancher who previously held the permit bid zero.

Although Idaho law requires land management for "the greatest long-term financial return," this being the West, land authorities interpreted that to mean than a rancher's nothing was better than a conservationist's $30, so the rancher got the lease.

Eventually, though, the Idaho Supreme Court ruled in Marvel's favor. Since then, his Western Watersheds Project and other conservationist groups have bid for more grazing leases on state lands in Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona.

Just recently, the Arizona Supreme Court gave the whole idea a resounding boost by slapping down state officials who insisted that grazing permits were for grazers and no one else. In a common-sense ruling that landed like a stink bomb in ranching communities, the justices said that the "arguably best bidder" should not be disqualified even though the intent was to restore the land rather than trample
it.

The case was argued by the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest on behalf of a group called Forest Guardians, which said it is prepared to offer up to five times the going rate paid by ranchers. The group could nearly double the 20,000 to 25,000 acres already leased by conservationists in the West for the purpose of giving public lands a rest.

This acreage so far is relatively small, but the point is far larger. Perhaps even Congress will get the point. Reform of the vast grazing program on federal lands is long overdue. There are no grazing auctions on U.S. public lands. Permits are granted and become virtual property held by the rancher. Fees are uniform: $1.35 per month to graze a cow and her calf, and 27 cents a month for a sheep.

"We've shown that the land is worth much more to people than that," said Marvel. How much more? Ranchers are terrified to find out.