October 24, 2003

The Bend Bulletin

Bill seeks to save land from grazing

by Matthew Johnson

WASHINGTON - Legislation being pushed by more than 30 Oregon-based lobbying groups would put cash in the wallets of Western ranchers who agree to give up their federal cattle-grazing permits.

Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., introduced bills in the House this week that could help resolve a long-standing cattle-grazing issue in Western states cattle grazing on federal lands.

The bills would let cattle ranchers voluntarily sell their grazing permits back to the government in return for $175 per animal unit month.

An animal unit month is the amount of forage needed to sustain one animal, for one month. Grazing fees for federal lands are charged by animal unit months or head-months.

The National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, a collective umbrella organization made up of more than 181 interest groups, conceived the buy out program. Thirty-three of the groups are based in Oregon.

"Grazing is a very big issue in that state (Oregon), especially in the eastern part, but Oregon also has strong support for land conservation because it is progressive," said Andy Kerr, director of the campaign.

The sale of a permit would entail an agreement by ranchers to never again graze their cattle on the land. The land would not then be used again for ranching.

According to the campaign's Web site, under the Shays-Grijalva bills, an individual with 300 cow/calf pairs that grazed public lands for five months of the year would receive $262,000 for retiring the permit.

The proposed authorization of $100 million for the program would provide enough money to retire an estimated 7.8 million acres of federal lands grazed by domestic livestock. There are currently more than 257 million federal acres subject to livestock grazing, according to the campaign's Web site.

But with this year's congressional session winding down, it's not clear if the bills will make much progress this year.

Some interest groups, including the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, believe the bills may be so controversial that they are unlikely to ever be passed. The cattlemen's group said the bill violates free-market principles and favors environmental concerns over ranchers' concerns.

"There is strong support for our position and, frankly, we aren't very worried about (the legislation)," said Jeff Eisenberg the executive director of the Public Lands Council and director of the Federal Lands and National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "Politically, the proposal is completely unviable and realistically we don't think that the legislation has much of a chance."

Glen Stonebrink, outgoing executive director of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, said that conservation groups have forced the government to adopt strict environmental regulations and limit the amount of business the cattlemen can do. Then ranchers, under the legislation, are given the opportunity to sell their permits to the government, make a substantial amount of money and be rid of the complicated processes, he said.

"I understand the pressures that get put on the ranchers, so from the cattlemen's point of view I guess I can't blame them," said Stonebrink. "But by the same token, when cattle are gone from the communities, what do those communities do to live on?"

Bill Marlett, executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, said that economic issues should not be a concern.

"I don't think for a minute that there is any loss of local economic stability. In fact, I think just the opposite," he said. "A lot of these ranchers will take that money and make investments in their base property and make the operations more efficient."

For Eisenberg of the national cattle group, the issue is centered on fairness.

"We support the operation of the free market, but we are against government policy that directly intervenes in the process and tips the balance on the scale," Eisenberg said.