April 23, 2005

Salt Lake Tribune

Legalize ranch buyouts to allow conservation and restoration

By Billy Stern


It was great to see the Salt Lake Tribune 's support for market-based conservation in last week's editorial, "Grand Canyon Preservation: Take the money and preserve the land" (April 15, 2005).

However, the editorial sidestepped a key issue in the Wal-Mart-funded purchase of the Kane and Two Mile ranches on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Despite the $4.5 million payment, the Grand Canyon Trust will only secure about 1,000 acres of private land. The rest of the money goes toward acquiring grazing permits on some 900,000 of federal land.

The irony is that current law requires (with few exceptions) anyone with a grazing lease to run livestock. This means that the Grand Canyon Trust, whose focus is land conservation, will have to purchase cattle and start ranching -- whether it wants to or not. If it doesn't, its lease on the 900,000 federally leased acres could be pulled and given to a rancher. This means the trust's initial investment would be lost.

This Catch-22 is the reason why most land conservation groups -- and the foundations, corporations and individuals who fund them -- are steering clear of purchasing ranches in areas they would like to see preserved.

So here is a radical idea: Save taxpayers money by paying ranchers to remove their livestock from public land. The Voluntary Grazing Permit Buyout bills, soon to be reintroduced in Congress, would change the law to allow either nonprofit groups or the federal government to purchase these leases, retire grazing and allow these public lands to recover from more than a century of grazing impacts.

These bills provide a reasonable, fair, market-based, win-win solution. Last session the two bills, one focused on Arizona and the other covering lands throughout the West, each had more than 20 congressional co-sponsors and were supported by hundreds of ranchers and more than 200 conservation groups.

If passed, the buyout gives public-land ranchers who are ready and willing to permanently retire their federal grazing allotments approximately $2,000 for each cow they graze annually. The money would come either from the government or from non-profit groups.

With the money from the voluntary buyout, ranchers could keep their private land, pay off their debts and diversify their operations, or simply retire. Meanwhile, removing cattle would allow these areas to recover, ease conflicts with the wolves, owls, flycatchers or other endangered species, and increase deer, elk and antelope numbers through reduced competition for forage.

It isn't clear how much Congress would allocate to the buyout program. However, ranchers nationwide pay about $14 million to lease 250 million acres of national forest and Bureau of Land Management land, but it costs the agencies more than $100 million annually to manage the program.

That doesn't include millions more spent on stream restoration, water developments, soil conservation and protecting wildlife and habitat affected by grazing. It would actually cost the taxpayers less to pay ranchers a fair sum up front than to annually subsidize the federal grazing program.

The question comes down to one of vision and values. Shouldn't nonprofit groups have the right to use the real estate market to protect streams trodden by cattle and polluted with sediment and E-coli and to remove cow pies, barbed wire fences and water troughs from national forests and BLM lands?

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Billy Stern is grazing reform program coordinator for Forest Guardians, a regional conservation organization whose mission is to preserve and restore native wildlands and wildlife in the American Southwest. He can be reached at bstern@fguardians.org.