October 21, 2003
The Salt Lake Tribune
Grazing buyout bills are floated
by Brent Israelsen
A bipartisan pair of congressmen on Monday introduced two pilot bills in Congress
they say could resolve livestock grazing conflicts in the West.
The bills -- one that applies to grazing on all public lands and one that deals
specifically with Arizona -- would provide federal money to buy grazing permits
from ranchers. Participation would be voluntary.
Once the grazing permits were purchased, the lands where the livestock once
roamed would be permanently closed to sheep and cows, leaving more forage for
Already controversial and likely to gain little traction in the near term, the
bills, sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.,
are intended as a federal experiment in an effort already under way by various
environmental groups that peddle "willing-buyer, willing-seller" offers
to buy out ranchers' grazing permits.
"The voluntary buyout, and I stress the word voluntary, is that proverbial
win-win solution to the largest public lands issue in the West," said Keith
Raether, spokesman for the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, an environmental
group that developed the legislation.
Raether said the legislation would give ranchers a "safety net, a way out
of a failing industry."
The bills also would give environmental groups a powerful tool in removing cattle
and sheep from the nation's forests and rangelands, which are becoming increasingly
valued by the public for their natural resources.
Unlike in previous efforts toward that end, this time environmentalists are
using the carrot rather than the stick approach.
And they are gaining rancher allies in the process.
In Arizona, more than 70 percent of public-lands ranchers support the buyout
proposal, said rancher John Whitney IV, co-chairman of the Arizona Grazing Buyout
Campaign, who conducted a written survey.
A southern Utah cattleman told The Salt Lake Tribune last month that two out
of three of his colleagues support the idea.
But the Utah Cattlemen's Association, which has 500 members, most of them public-lands
ranchers, probably will oppose the legislation, said the group's vice president,
"One of the main concerns is that it will affect not only the ranching
community but a lot of the small communities who are very dependent on ranching,"
Agriculture, of which ranching is just a part, represents just 1 percent of
The association is expected to take an official position on the buyout legislation
during its annual convention in December.
Whitney said Western cattle associations are out of touch with the full-time
ranchers on this issue.
"The association would just let their members wither out on the range and
die. I'm not willing to sit by and let that happen," said Whitney, whose
father is among the largest holders of public-lands grazing permits in the Grand
The buyout bills would pay ranchers $175 per "animal-unit month" (AUM),
a grazing-permit measurement of the amount of forage consumed by a cow and her
calf in one month.
That sum would give ranchers a significant incentive to participate. In Utah,
AUMs are currently selling for between $40 and $130 on the open market.
Whitney said many ranchers would use the $175 windfall to purchase private lands
and move their ranching operation there.
The buyout bills carry a hefty price tag for the taxpayer, though. With 18 million
AUMs held by 25,000 ranchers around the West, a total buyout could cost the
treasury $3.2 billion.
The pilot bills, however, are seeking only a $100 million appropriation to test
Environmentalists say that in the long run, the treasury will save money, arguing
the federal grazing program costs taxpayers about $500 million a year.