April 17, 2002

Pay ranchers to stop grazing livestock? Yes, say environmentalists

Faith Bremner
Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON -- A coalition of environmental groups is trying to drum up support for a proposed federal program that would pay ranchers to voluntarily stop grazing livestock on public land.

The National Public Lands Grazing Campaign last week sent letters to 25,000 public lands ranchers that outlines the idea and urges them to contact their elected officials.

If enough support emerges, said campaign director Andy Kerr, the group will push Congress to enact a federal grazing lease buyout program. The program would save taxpayers money in the long run, help the environment and compensate ranchers so they can retire or get into another line of work, he said.

Kerr said the federal government spends $500 million a year operating grazing programs on lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.

"It's a win-win-win," Kerr said. "The (cattle) industry is in a decline, taxpayers are getting sick of the subsidies and all the environmental problems."

Cattle industry officials say they doubt there's support in Congress for such a program. It would cost more than $3 billion to buy everyone out and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association hasn't found anyone in Congress willing to sponsor legislation for a more limited, cheaper, industry-backed lease buyout program, spokesman Jason Campbell said. Government officials are reluctant to buy leases they already regulate, he said.

"Nobody wants to spend government funds on this thing; there's a huge philosophical problem with it," Campbell said.

The cattlemen support a smaller program costing $3 million to $4 million a year that would target permit holders that operate in environmentally sensitive areas where grazing-rule changes would make it uneconomical for them to continue, Campbell said.

The large-scale program backed by environmentalists would devastate rural economies, said Beth Emter, spokeswoman for the Montana Stockgrowers Association. Livestock operators are a major contributor to many rural economies, she said.

"We believe we should be trying to sustain rural economies rather than provide a one-time windfall," Emter said. "Ten years down the road, these communities would be largely ghost towns."

These towns are already drying up and blowing away, Kerr said. A buyout program won't change that, he said.

"Why not use this as a golden parachute?" he asked. "(Permit holders) can have a soft landing, species and watersheds can be conserved and restored and taxpayers can save a lot of money."