Federal Grazing Program Costs: $500 Million Annually

The Center for Biological Diversity recently published Assessing the Full Cost of the Federal Grazing Program by Karyn Moscowitz and Chuck Romaniello, the most thorough study to date documenting the direct and indirect costs of the grazing programs administered by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Although Moscowitz and Romaniello identify many indirect costs of the agency programs (i.e., costs of supporting public lands grazing that are not explicitly attributed to the grazing program), the authors chose to abide by standard economic reporting practices and excluded indirect costs in their final analysis because they are not "transparent" (explicit) in the federal budget. However, every researcher who has studied the costs of public lands grazing (including Moscowitz and Romaniello) has acknowledged that indirect costs are a significant portion--if not greater than direct expenditures--of total grazing costs.

With due respect to traditional fiscal reporting practices, for the purpose of improving public policy--and in the absence of better information--the NPLGC estimate of the cost of the federal grazing program includes direct and indirect costs. When addressing grazing costs, NPLGC believes that including indirect cost data that is approximately correct is preferable to ignoring the information, effectively assigning "$0" to such costs, which is precisely wrong.

The Cost of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management Livestock Grazing Programs
Press Release: Center for Biological Diversity • Study finds full cost of federal grazing program may exceed $500 million
Report: Assessing the Full Cost of the Federal Grazing Program

Commentary: A New Economy and Land Uses in the West

Excerpted from Atlantic Monthly, Jan/Feb 2003:

The New Continental Divide

Overcrowded cities on the coasts. Dying rural communities in the interior. The way to save both may be to create a post-agrarian heartland

Michael Lind

. . . Today only about six percent of America's land is residential (urban, suburban, and rural). About 20 percent is farmland, another 25 percent is rangeland, and the rest is wilderness and woodland. The United States grows far more food today than it did in 1954, on about three quarters the acreage. Since 1950, even as agricultural production has increased by more than 100 percent, land has been taken out of agriculture eight times as fast as it has been consumed by suburban development. Much of that abandoned farmland has gone back to forest, particularly in the Northeast. In the twenty-first century most of the land that is liberated from unnecessary agriculture can continue to be restored to wilderness, prairie, forest, or desert, even if a significant portion is reserved for new, low-density housing for migrants from the crowded coastal states.

The federal government subsidizes many farms and ranches that should have been shut down long ago. At best, farm subsidies provide life support for comatose communities. The government is planning to spend at least $171 billion on direct farm subsidies alone over the coming decade. In much of the continental interior this money would be better used to promote a combination of service and manufacturing industries, as part of an ambitious economic-development program for the region.

Washington should also phase out the roughly $2 billion in annual irrigation subsidies to western agribusinesses, of which almost half is used for surplus crops. Subsidized irrigation is rapidly depleting the High Plains aquifer under Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Nebraska, which now provides about 30 percent of the groundwater used in the United States. The experiment with agriculture in the semi-arid Great Plains from the late nineteenth century onward was a mistake; it produced the Dust Bowl during the Depression and today's regional demographic decline. Cutting off such subsidies would not only end the western water wars but also drive agriculture eastward to states like Illinois and Iowa, where water is abundant and renewable. Within those states market pricing for water would encourage crop diversification and technological innovation in agriculture. Residential and industrial use, not agricultural use, should be the priority of water policy in the Great Plains and the desert and Mountain West, including major portions of California and Texas. And diverting water from agriculture to industry has the potential to generate far more jobs: according to the U.S. Geological Survey, for example, the same amount of water that supports a sixty-acre alfalfa farm with only two workers could support a semiconductor factory with 2,000 workers.

The money saved by reducing direct and indirect agricultural subsidies could help to pay for a new high-tech infrastructure in the American heartland. All too many rural areas lack, for example, high-speed broadband access. The federal government, which subsidized the railroad in the nineteenth century and the electric-power grid and interstate highways in the twentieth, needs to build a transcontinental infrastructure once again. A hydrogen-based transportation system might be constructed from nothing in many rural areas, which would be spared the transition costs necessary in developed regions. And the government could encourage an air-taxi system, such as James Fallows has proposed in this magazine (see "Freedom of the Skies," June 2001 Atlantic), in which thousands of small regional airports would supplement our major hubs, potentially turning dying small towns into new centers of commerce and culture. An "interstate-skyway system" might be to America in the twenty-first century what the interstate-highway system was in the twentieth.

. . . In a second inland movement, wired professionals and well-paid service workers might make new lives in wide-open spaces that are slowly reverting from monotonous expanses of wheat and corn to wilderness. The first wave of heartland settlement was in the long-term perspective a failure, with consequences that are evident today. The high-tech pioneers of the twenty-first century, unlike their agrarian predecessors, may be able to reconcile the myth of the heartland with the American dream.