How the NPLGC Voluntary Federal Grazing Permit Buyout Proposal Comports with the Sierra Club Federal Public Lands Grazing Policy

The National Public Lands Grazing Campaign (NPLGC) voluntary federal grazing permit buyout proposal is compatible with the Sierra Club federal public lands grazing policy, and can be a tool (among others) to implement and achieve the Sierra Club's policy goals. The following is a side-by-side analysis of the Sierra Club grazing policy (left column) and commentary by NPLGC (right column).


Sierra Club Federal Public Lands Grazing Policy1   National Public Lands Grazing Campaign2 Commentary
The primary goal of this Sierra Club federal public lands grazing policy is to protect and restore native biodiversity and achieve functional and self-sustaining ecosystems. The Sierra Club recognizes that the preponderance of scientific evidence documents that grazing by non-native species has led to severe and sometimes irreversible degradation of native ecosystems. Federal public lands belong to the American public and must be managed to maintain their long-term ecological integrity. In order to achieve our objectives, the Sierra Club advocates significant changes to current land management practices to correct the problem.   The NPLGC permit buyout proposal-if enacted by Congress-and wherever the option is exercised by federal grazing permittees/lessees-would permanently remove domestic livestock from federal public lands allotment(s), allowing watersheds, native vegetation, fish, and wildlife, and soil to recover from grazing impacts.
The following five points apply to all aspects of this policy:    
(1) Commercial grazing is not appropriate on federal public lands except where it is shown by science that some grazing is needed to achieve ecological objectives.   The NPLGC permit buyout proposal is voluntary for permittees/lessees. Permittees would decide whether to end their grazing on public lands.

Grazing is ecologically destructive to native ecosystems in almost every case. However, in those few situations where grazing is desirable to achieve management objectives, it could continue on allotments retired by the NPLGC permit buyout proposal through a service contract precisely scaled and timed to achieve ecological goals, rather than tailored to the economic needs of a permittee/lessee.
(2) On federal public lands that were once grazed by large native herbivores the Sierra Club will seek, whenever feasible, the replacement of non-native grazing species (cattle, sheep, goats, etc.) with native grazers (within their historic range).   The NPLGC permit buyout proposal would remove livestock from federal public lands wherever the buyout option was exercised, clearing the way for replacement or reintroduction of native grazers.
(3) Where settlement or ownership patterns obstruct the reintroduction of native grazers on public lands, grazing operators should manage livestock towards the goal of maximum restoration of native plant and animal communities, water quality and other environmental goals. Meat or fiber production should not be a primary goal of such grazing and operators should be required to demonstrate a steadily improving range trend toward excellent ecological condition.   Most public lands livestock operators could not meet these management objectives as a majority already have difficulty making money from their grazing operations under current management prescriptions. Changing their grazing practices to become less environmentally abusive will render their grazing operations untenable from what was previously merely unprofitable.

The NPLGC permit buyout proposal would offer grazing permittees/lessees the option to retire their permit, in which case an agency could contract with them or other livestock operators to graze public lands to meet public ecological goals, instead of private economic objectives.
(4) The Sierra Club recognizes that restrictions on grazing may have negative impacts on the cultural and economic stability of some communities. These impacts are apt to be most severe in Native American, minority and low-income communities. We are committed to developing partnerships with community members to identify and implement strategies to protect both traditional communities and the ecological integrity of public lands, without sacrificing either.   The generous rate of $175/animal unit month (AUM) proposed by NPLGC to buyout federal grazing permits/leases would help alleviate the impacts of retiring grazing allotments on local communities.
(5) The Sierra Club is committed to helping ease the economic burden on small family ranch operations with federal public lands allotments that would be affected by termination or reduction of their grazing leases.   The NPLGC permit buyout proposal would ease the economic burden on small family ranchers when faced with reduction or elimination of grazing privileges. If/when reduction or revocation of a grazing permit or lease was required, a permittee or lessee could-at any time before the adjustment was final-elect to sell their permit and receive generous compensation instead.
Local Sierra Club entities are urged to advocate whatever incremental improvements seem most appropriate for specific sites within their jurisdiction up to and including an end to commercial grazing.  

 

In addition to local site-specific efforts, the Club may seek federal legislation and regulations to curtail grazing and accomplish the other goals of this policy.   Legislation to establish a federal voluntary grazing permit buyout proposal is supported by conservationists, some permittees and lessees, some bankers (who have loaned against grazing permits/leases), animal rights advocates, birdwatchers, fishers, native plant enthusiasts, and even mushroom-pickers as an ecologically desirable, economically rational, fiscally prudent, socially compassionate and politically pragmatic solution to public lands grazing problems.
Nothing in this policy precludes the Sierra Club's full support for legislation and/or administrative actions, such as wilderness bills, that primarily address non-grazing issues, but do not meet the goals of this grazing policy.   Because it is voluntary, the NPLGC permit buyout proposal compliments other conservation legislation and campaigns. For example, voluntary permit buyout provisions could be included in specific environmental legislation to solve local resource conflicts by providing incentive to grazing permittees/lessees to retire their grazing allotments.

Establishing a federal permit buyout program could be particularly beneficial in designating new Wilderness areas. Politically, conservationists made a deal with the livestock industry in the Wilderness Act of 1964, grandfathering grazing use in any area where it was occurring before it became/becomes designated Wilderness. However, the deal has not resulted in the livestock industry supporting new wilderness areas. In fact, in many parts of the arid West, the livestock industry has been the major opposition to new Wilderness designation. If this opposition can be reduced through permit buyout, it is probable that more, larger Wilderness areas could be established on landscapes newly liberated from livestock grazing.
Sierra Club Strategy for Moving Towards our Goals for Public Land Grazing

The Sierra Club believes that the following interim actions can facilitate the long-term goal for eventual restoration of our federal public lands, and would support legislation or regulation where needed:
   
(a) Holders of grazing permits or leases should be allowed to reduce utilization rates or rest or retire lands without losing their permit or lease, and without the retired use being reallocated to others.   The Supreme Court held that administrative nonuse, as once proposed by the Clinton Administration, is illegal under current law.

The NPLGC proposed grazing permit buyout legislation would supersede the Taylor Grazing Act and allow permittees/lessees to reduce or suspend their grazing use without the threat of losing their permit or lease.
(b) If allotments become open for reallocation, they should be awarded by a competitive bidding system whereby a bidder who meets minimum bid requirements and proposes the grazing strategy that will maximize biological preservation and recovery shall be awarded the grazing contract, even if that bidder proposes to retire the allotment and manage it for other values, such as water quality.   There is no federal law authorizing such a bidding system and it is politically unlikely that one would be enacted soon. Even if a bidding system did exist, the financial resources of the conservation community are grossly inadequate to successfully bid enough grazing allotments to make a difference.
(c) The managing agency should determine and document, at each renewal interval, that the allotment has made substantial progress towards established ecological and environmental quality goals. Permits or leases where such progress is not demonstrated should be terminated.   Regular monitoring and analysis of resource conditions on federal grazing allotments are already required by law, which also empowers federal land managers to reduce or terminate grazing permits where ecological goals are not being met. However, this is rarely done due to inadequate funding or the reluctance of managers to reduce or eliminate grazing that could effectively bankrupt a permittee/lessee.

If a manager knew a permittee/lessee could elect to receive generous compensation through the buyout option, they would be more likely to enforce existing environmental law.
(d) The managing agency should establish and enforce strict water quality standards for all streams on public grazing allotments. The managing agency should establish and enforce standards for protection and restoration of all public land riparian ecosystems. Where progress is not being made to fully meet these standards grazing should be terminated.   (Please see above.)
(e) The federal government should establish a Grasslands Restoration Bank to purchase open space and wildlife riparian easements on private grazing lands in primarily public land grazing watersheds where ecosystems are grazing dependent; or to buy the fee land from private ranchers in arid or other areas where neither private nor public lands are suitable for grazing. Once these two highest priority needs have been largely met, this Bank could be used to subsidize the transition from non-native to native grazing species.   At the proposed $175/AUM rate of compensation, permittees/lessees who exercised the buyout option would be in position to acquire their own additional forage resources.
Internal Priorities for Immediate Action

Recognizing that changes to grazing policy will likely take a number of years to accomplish and that some areas of the public lands are more imminently threatened by destructive grazing practices than others, the Sierra Club has prioritized our efforts. As a first priority, the Sierra Club will work toward ending commercial grazing on federal public lands where one or more of the following circumstance exists:
   
- Lands that receive an average annual precipitation of 12 inches or less or areas with cryic soils.   The vast majority of grazed federal public lands in the West are grasslands or deserts, all of which would be eligible for voluntary federal grazing permit buyout under the NPLGC proposal.
- Associated activities (e.g., water developments, predator control, vegetation manipulation) are occurring in such a manner that native plant and animal species are significantly impacted.   Range developments are present on most federal public lands that are grazed by domestic livestock.
- Grazing is causing degradation of habitat necessary for threatened, endangered or sensitive native plant and animal species.   Species representative of every ecosystem in the West are threatened by livestock grazing. The sage grouse, wolf, grizzly bear, black-footed ferret, bighorn sheep, Sonoran pronghorn, yellow-billed cuckoo and desert tortoise are just a few that are affected by public lands grazing.
- Grazing is causing significant degradation of water quality.   Most rivers and streams on federal public lands in the West violate state and federal water quality. Many have been polluted by livestock grazing.
- The public land management agencies have insufficient funding, staff, and determination to create and administer monitoring systems that will provide reasonable assurance that adverse impacts will be minimized and opportunities for restoration taken advantage of.   Every federal agency that administers public lands grazing suffers from a lack of funding, staff, and motivation to monitor resource conditions and implement and enforce grazing restrictions. Current law, politics and agency administration simply prohibit land managers from imposing responsible grazing practices on federal permittees/lessees.

 


1. Adopted by the Sierra Club Board of Directors, September 24, 2000.
2. Complete information on voluntary grazing permit buyout is available at www.publiclandsranching.org.