September 13, 2004
The Washington Post
In grazing debate, some ranchers are switching sides
By Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post Staff Writer
Bob Miller, a fourth-generation farmer in Oregon's Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument,
is ready to call it quits.
He grazes 150 head of cattle on mountainous federal land that provides crucial
forage for his herd, but he is well aware that in a matter of years, the government
may push him off after completing a multimillion-dollar study on how ranching
is affecting the local ecology.
"This study has become a big albatross," Miller said. "They're
going to have to buy us out one way or another. We think they better do it now."
Miller and about a dozen other ranchers in Cascade-Siskiyou own federal grazing
permits, lifetime permits that allow them to graze cattle for less than $1.50
a month apiece on the public land. But with concern intensifying about what grazing
is doing to the land and the rare species that depend on it, he and others are
making common cause with environmentalists who want to end the practice.
These overtures have encouraged environmentalists such as Rod Mondt, Southwest
representative for the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, a coalition to
stop livestock grazing on public lands.
"All of a sudden we're starting to sit down with the ranching community,"
Mondt said. "The collaboration is starting to build."
But the nascent push to end federal grazing in Oregon, Arizona and elsewhere has
sparked a backlash from several cattlemen's associations, as well as some Republicans
in Congress. The debate over how to treat the ranchers underscores the growing
political and economic tension over the federal government's decades-old policy
of promoting grazing on federal land with low-cost permits.
No one argues that the policy is a moneymaker. Last year the Bureau of Land Management
took in nearly $12 million in grazing receipts, officials said, but it spent $50
million administering the program. Critics say the true cost is at least twice
as high, noting that the figures do not include expenses such as range development
and predator control.
"All of our programs are money-losing," said Jim Hughes, deputy director
for policy and programs at the Bureau of Land Management. "Congress said
it was in the public interest to maintain a viable public grazing industry in
But activists on both sides of the debate differ on whether ranching is a boon
or a threat to sensitive federal lands. Mike Byrne, a rancher in Tulelake, Calif.,
near the Oregon border, said he and other ranchers help preserve range land by
keeping vegetation in check.
"The environment as a whole is in better shape when we're there than when
we're not," said Byrne, who compared ungrazed land to a haunted house. "It's
a lot better to have somebody take care of the land than to allow it to go decadent."
George Wuerthner, ecological projects director for the California-based Foundation
for Deep Ecology, disagrees. He said grazing and other livestock activities compact
the soil, which can lead to flooding, spread invasive species and drain moist
woodlands that other plants and animals depend on for sustenance. According to
Agriculture Department statistics, he noted, grazing has been linked to the perilous
state of 22 percent of threatened and endangered species.
"Livestock production is the single biggest negative economic impact across
the western United States," Wuerthner said.
Environmentalists have been pushing to end federal grazing for years. They question
why the federal government would permit grazing for minimal fees, when they could
leave the land ungrazed.
But some ranchers say the alternative could be worse -- if ranchers lose their
permits, they might sell their own adjacent land to developers.
Environmentalists, said Chandler Keys, vice president for government affairs for
the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, are telling ranchers "to get in
your pickup and get the hell out of Flagstaff. That rancher is an integral part
of the system, whether you like it or not."
But after decades of feuding with environmentalists, some ranchers have changed
sides. Some feel pressured by federal regulation; in other instances, they simply
cannot earn the living they used to.
John Whitney III started ranching when he was 14, and he still owns the Circle
Bar Ranch, an hour's drive northeast of Phoenix. But he no longer owns the 1,250
cows he once did: The U.S. Forest Service forced him to take them off its land
in 2000 because of a drought that has devastated the landscape, and he lost his
appeal two years later.
"We're pretty much done on federal land," Whitney said. "It's not
a good business environment anymore."
Whitney is one of about 160 Arizona ranchers who back buyout legislation that
would pay them $175 for each "animal month unit," the amount of forage
needed to sustain a cow and calf for one month. Under current rules, the federal
government determines each year how long ranchers can graze their herds by allocating
them a set number of animal month units.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers has filed two ranching buyout bills, one that
would reach nationwide and cost $100 million, and a smaller one aimed just at
Arizona ranchers. A buyout would be "a sensible policy," said Rep. Raul
M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), one of the plan's authors, who spent his first five years
living on a ranch where his father worked as a cowboy. "It's a voluntary
act. It doesn't push anybody out."
But Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for House Resources Committee Chairman Richard
W. Pombo (R-Calif.), called the proposal "dead on arrival," saying the
bill would essentially "end grazing and ranching in the West as we know it."
Hughes at the Bureau of Land Management said the administration also opposes the
buyout, questioning where the government would find the funds to pay for it.
But environmentalists say the buyout will save money in the long run, and Whitney
said he and other ranchers believe a buyout would have a "50-50 chance"
of success in Arizona.
"Economics will dictate it," he predicted. "A lot of people don't
like cows anymore, they don't want them out on federal land."