March 24, 2004

Eastern Arizona Courier

Grazing buyout supporters look for feedback

by John Kamin, Assistant Editor

Champions of the Arizona Voluntary Grazing Permit Buyout Act are requesting the help of ranchers to point out weaknesses in the proposed legislation.

National Public Lands Grazing Campaign Southwest Representative Rod Mondt said the act has 14 co-sponsors in Arizona. There are federal and a state version of the act, which was initially proposed by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.)

According to a news release from the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign (NPLGC), the act "would allow federal public lands ranchers to waive their interest in grazing permits in exchange for compensation in the amount of $175 per Animal Unit Month (or AUM, the amount of forage to sustain one cow and calf for one month)... The goal of the NPLGC is to provide a solution to the largest conservation issue in the West -- livestock grazing -- and a financial alternative for cash-strapped public lands ranchers with investments stranded in grazing permits."

The federal version of the bill authorizes $100 million for the program, which should be enough money to retire an estimated 7.8 million acres of federal lands being grazed by livestock. Critics say the bill is a push by environmentalists to end ranching in the United States.

"There is no language in there that would force them to make any decision," Mondt said. "They can make that decision based on their best business interests... There is no language in the bill talking about the impacts or whether cattle grazing is good for the land or bad for the land."

He said changing economies, the drought, forest fires and varying market forces are potential factors in ranchers' decisions of whether to sell grazing permits.

Mondt said the state version of the bill has 165 confirmed signatures of support from ranchers. He said he expects that number to jump to 180 soon.

One of the forces of support behind the state version of the bill is made by the Whitney family, Mondt said. John Whitney III holds the state's largest U.S. Forest Service grazing permit. The permit is for the 158,000-acre Sunflower allotment in the Tonto National Forest.

Rep. Jake Flake (R) and Sen. Jack Brown (D) have both mentioned large reductions in the number of cattle allowed to graze on allotments in the Tonto National Forest.

"We're open to listening to the ranching community to see where those (weaknesses) could be addressed," he said. Grijalva is working with other members of Congress to see what changes need to be made to the legislation.

"It will change through the various stages of bill markup," Mondt said. Conservation groups such as the Sierra Club, the Arizona Wildlife Federation, Sonoran Arthopod Studies Inc., the Sky Island Alliance, the Center for Biological Diversity and almost all the chapters of the Arizona Audubon Society have pledged written support for the bill, he said. He said Forest Guardians (a New Mexico conservation group) has also endorsed the federal bill.

Mondt said the U.S. Forest Service has not endorsed the bill and usually avoids commenting on or endorsing any proposed legislation.

As the director of the Arizona program, Mondt's primary duty is to recruit more support for the bill.

"My grandfather and great uncle are ranchers in Montana and Wyoming," he said. He said he understands that most ranchers consider retaining their grazing privileges to be extremely important.

Mondt attributes his desire to work on the campaign to his understanding of the balance between retaining one's grazing privileges and making a profit. The drought is one of the biggest factors hurting ranchers in Arizona, he said.