January 23, 2005

Albuquerque Journal

Buyout plan targets ranchers, grazing permits would be retired

By Tania Soussan
Journal Staff Writer

MONTICELLO— When Darryl Sullivan's grandfather was running cattle on the family ranch, the price he got for one calf would pay a hired hand for three months.

Today, Sullivan can hire a man for just four days with what he gets for a calf.

To make ends meet, he works several other jobs in Las Cruces: selling horse trailers and livestock equipment, making custom hats, laser-leveling fields and putting in cement irrigation ditches.

His two grown sons aren't interested in taking over the 44-Bar Ranch, south of Socorro, that has been in the family for five generations.

"A guy just needs to make a living for his family," he said. "A rancher and a farmer just doesn't make any money."

That's why Sullivan is eyeing a proposal backed by Santa Fe-based Forest Guardians and other environmental groups to use taxpayer money to buy out and retire federal land grazing leases.

"You can survive the drought and everything else, but you cannot survive the economy," he said recently, leaning on generations-old corrals still in use on his land. "Next year, it'll be worse, 10 years from now it'll be worse for the rancher."

The grazing permit buyout idea won't become reality overnight, but it has been slowly gaining momentum in Congress and among ranchers.

Groups backing the proposal sent a letter this month to 22,000 grazing permitees, urging them to support the idea.

Federal land managers and the livestock industry oppose the grazing buyout proposal. But ranchers like Sullivan— including more than 250 in Arizona, 40 or 50 in New Mexico and others around the West— are slowing but quietly coming out to support it, proponents say.

Fourth-generation rancher John Whitney III, who holds the largest Forest Service grazing permit in Arizona, has been an outspoken proponent of the idea and has lobbied members of Congress in Washington, D.C.

The idea got off the ground in 2002 when the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign— a coalition of environmental groups— sent a letter to permit holders across the country.

"There's change going on in the range," said Andy Kerr, director of the campaign. "Society has changed the rules on public-lands ranchers. It's socially just to give these guys a golden saddle.

"The forage could be reallocated to native wildlife and watershed protection, which is a more important use of the lands. It would save the taxpayers lots of money."

The potential for a buyout has environmental groups that have long been at odds with ranchers now trying to win them over as allies.

"The vision behind a permit retirement program is there is a common language there, and the common language is money," said John Horning, executive director of Forest Guardians.

Environmentalists say ending grazing— even if only on some allotments— would be good for the land, for native wildlife and for riparian areas and watersheds.

Buyout proposals

Grazing-permit buyout programs were proposed in 2003 in national and Arizona-specific legislation introduced by Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., and supported by two dozen other representatives. The bills did not pass but are expected to be reintroduced this year.

In addition, buyout provisions were included last year in an Idaho wilderness bill introduced by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and are expected to be part of an Oregon national monument bill.

Members of New Mexico's delegation either have not taken a position or oppose a buyout in part because of potential negative impacts on rural communities.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said the buyout is not a sound concept.

"Ranchers already have the ability to sell out their business, which includes valid grazing permits," he said in a statement.

But Horning argued the timing is right for a New Mexico bill— perhaps targeting the Gila country or the southwestern part of the state— to be introduced within the next two years.

Ranchers are struggling because of drought, tougher environmental requirements for endangered species and other needs, foreign competition, encroaching development and increased pressure from recreationists, he said.

"We simply need a few more ranchers in New Mexico to step out of the woodwork and realize the time is now," Horning said.

The buyout would give ranchers a one-time payment based on the number of livestock on their federal grazing permits, which they otherwise could sell or will to heirs like other property. The land then would be permanently retired from livestock grazing.

The proposal offers ranchers $175 for each cow or cow-calf pair per month— called an animal unit month by the government— on their permit, compared with a market value in the West of $35 to $75, according to the campaign.

For example, a rancher with a permit to graze 100 cows for nine months of the year on a Forest Service allotment would get $157,500 from the buyout.

Ranchers' concerns

That's a good deal for the ranchers, said Derrick Ashcraft, a neighbor of Sullivan's who runs cattle on about 75,000 acres of private, Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land.

Like other Southwest ranchers, he's reduced his herd dramatically in recent years.

"We're still in a serious state of drought," he said. "There's nothing to eat."

The 76-year-old native of England who landed in Monticello after years of living in New Jersey said ranching is not financially rewarding.

He's suspicious of Forest Guardians, but wants to have the option of a buyout.

"I'm in no rush to sell," Ashcraft said as he looked across the piñon and juniper hills from the patio of his ranch house. "I'm in no rush to get out, but if the right opportunity came along, I probably would."

The buyout might be just that opportunity. Ashcraft has permits to graze 854 cows year-round, so he could get a $1.8 million payout.

"That ain't all bad," he said. "I'm not for it. I'm not against it. With the option, I don't have to be. Let's have that option."

It's also a good deal for the taxpayers who would foot the bill, Kerr said.

Buying out all the federal grazing permits in the country would cost $3.1 billion. The national bill introduced in Congress by Shays included $100 million as a start. But the costs of administering the grazing programs are huge.

A study by University of Kentucky and BLM economists for the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity in 2002 found that federal grazing programs cost taxpayers and the government $128 million to $500 million a year in rangeland management costs and in damage to public land.

Grazing fees generate about $6.9 million a year.

Ranchers pay $1.43 a month to graze a cow and calf on federal land— compared with an average of $12 on private land in the West— while the government spends about $24 to monitor and manage the allotment, according to the Public Lands Grazing Campaign.

Helping the land

Land retired from grazing would be left for wildlife habitat, watersheds and recreation.

"This is an option that can keep the West's open spaces wild and allow for ecological recovery on public land," Horning said.

Environmentalists argue that grazing damages the land, causes pollution and displaces native species.

But Ashcraft, Sullivan and other ranchers don't agree that ending livestock grazing would improve the land.

"Where are you going to find two greater environmentalists than Darryl and I?" said Ashcraft. "I'm not going to abuse this land."

A better idea would be to put the land into a grassbank for ranchers to use so their regular pastures could rest, Sullivan said.

Cows vs. condos

Livestock industry groups have broader fears about the proposal.

"We don't see this to be voluntary," said Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, which passed a resolution against the idea.

Cowan said government regulations that restrict ranchers can force them to do things like take a buyout.

The Forest Service also has concerns. Janette Kaiser, the agency's national director of rangeland management, said she could not comment on the proposed legislation. But she said the Forest Service has been worried about loss of open space and a need to keep ranchers on the land.

One fear is that if ranchers give up their federal allotments, they will be more likely to get out of the livestock business and subdivide or sell their land to developers.

But Kerr said "cows vs. condos" argument is not justified.

If there's development pressure in an area, having a federal grazing permit won't stop a rancher from selling. In fact, the buyout might give ranchers enough cash to ease the financial pressure to sell their private land, Kerr said.

That might be how it works for Sullivan, who is building a house in Monticello and intends to stay in the area.

He has 7,000 acres of deeded land in the rolling country north of town along with permits to run livestock on 7,680 acres of Forest Service land and 1,920 acres each of BLM and state trust land.

Sullivan said that if he took the buyout, he would continue ranching on his private land and use the payout to invest in apartments or other real estate.

"You've got income while you're sleeping," he said.