September 9, 2004

Land Letter

Buyout proposal evokes mixed feelings in cattle country

April Reese

West Yellowstone, Mont. -- John Whitney III has had it with ranching on federal lands.

Five years of drought, recreation pressures, cow-shooting joy riders, and a lack of interest among his children in taking over the family ranch have led him to question continuing to run cattle on his 156,000-acre allotment in the Tonto National Forest, just east of Phoenix.

"I love the work, but not on federal land," he said. "It's just getting to be miserable."

Whitney is one of a handful of ranchers speaking out in favor of a controversial proposal to purchase federal grazing permits from ranchers who no longer want to run cattle on them. Drought, regulatory and market pressures, and other factors are making ranching less palatable and a buyout increasingly appealing, they say.

"We have changed the rules on these guys -- we've passed laws like the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and others over the years," said Andy Kerr, director of the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, which came up with the federal buyout concept. "So I argue it's a matter of social justice to give these guys a golden saddle."

Whitney, along with other ranchers, environmentalists, federal lawmakers and congressional staff members were guests of a "grazing fact-finding tour" hosted by the campaign here last week. The tour, which included stops at ungrazed lands within Yellowstone National Park and grazed lands in adjacent Beaverhead National Forest, was organized to drum up support for two buyout bills now pending in the House: one to allow buyouts on 257 million acres of public lands throughout the West (H.R. 3324) and another to establish a pilot buyout program in Arizona (H.R. 3337).

Both bills would offer ranchers $175 per animal unit month (AUM), a figure higher than the average AUM value of $35 to $75, according to Kerr. One AUM equals the forage necessary to support one cow and her calf for one month. Buying out all of the grazing permits -- about 18 million AUMs -- could cost about $3.3 billion, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (Land Letter, Oct. 23, 2003).

Supporters of the buyout argue that reducing grazing on public lands would give ranchers ready to jettison their federal allotments an attractive way out while helping endangered species rebound and addressing a financial boondoggle that costs the federal government about $124 million annually.

Grazing has left one side of Denny Creek, shown at top, with compacted soil and eroded banks, destroying the willows and other typical riparian vegetation that still grow just across the road from the grazed area. Photos courtesy of April Reese

And many environmentalists argue that grazing has taken a heavy toll on the health of public lands throughout the West. Grazing can encourage invasive species to take hold, reduce forage for wildlife, compact soils and foul streams, critics say.

"If you have cows, you're going to have impacts," said Glenn Hockett of the Gallatin Wildlife Association in Montana, who supports the buyout.

"We've turned the public lands into a big stockyard for the livestock industry, and everything else is secondary," said George Wuerthner, an ecologist and public lands advocate who wrote a book called "Welfare Ranching."

Ranching in the West accounts for just 3 percent of the nation's beef supply; much of the rest comes from the Midwest and East, according to the campaign. If every rancher in the West took advantage of the buyout -- which is unlikely -- the reduction in beef production would easily be made up by private operations, said Mark Salvo of the American Lands Alliance.

Federal agencies can temporarily retire grazing permits -- to rest the land during a drought, for instance -- but under current law, they are obligated to consider re-issuing permits if a rancher expresses interest in the allotment. The buyout legislation would allow permits to be permanently retired.

But Ralph Giffen, assistant director for rangeland management for the Forest Service, said the buyout may have unintended consequences. While grazing on federal lands sometimes presents management challenges, it also provides benefits, such as maintaining fuel breaks in areas that otherwise would become overgrown with brush.

"We can't foreclose our options of using grazing as a tool," Giffen said.

And the buyout could indirectly lead to the loss of open space in the West, Giffen added. Ranchers who give up their federal allotment -- typically an important part of their total grazing operation -- may decide to sell their private ranch to developers, he said.

Yet some speculate that many ranchers would use the money to buy more private lands, which they say are often easier to run cattle on than federal lands. "On private lands, you already have water improvements, fences, there's less predator loss, and you have irrigation," said Brit Groom, a rancher who runs cattle on two federal allotments in Idaho.

Tom Gorey, a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management, said the buyout proposal is a "back door" attempt to eliminate public lands grazing and ignores its benefits.

"Grazing brings economic and social benefits to rural communities, and it also helps preserve open space and wildlife habitat in the fast-growing West," Gorey said. "What this does is buy the rancher out and then end grazing altogether, which is contrary to a recognized use of the public lands."

No one knows for sure how many ranchers support the buyout proposal, but when the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign sent out a letter to all permittees informing them of the buyout campaign, it received about 100 positive responses, Kerr said.

Many ranchers and ranching groups are against the buyout.

Caren Cowen, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, said ranchers already have the option of giving up their federal allotments. "Those are available on the free market now -- you can bid on them," she said. "So why should taxpayers pay for a buyout?"

"It's not an attempt to help the industry," said Bob Jones, a rancher in southern New Mexico. "It's an attempt to get ranchers out of the industry."

Jones said none of the ranchers in his area support the proposal.

"I talk to a lot of ranchers, and everyone says they're not interested," agreed Rachel Buzzetti, executive director of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association.

Micah Wells, governmental affairs officer for the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, is more equivocal.

"It's a complex issue," he said. "We're not in favor of grazing buyouts, but at the same time, it might be an option some people may want to look at." His group has passed a resolution supporting a buyout of a federal permit held by a rancher who runs cattle on an allotment in a national monument, but has not taken a position on the national buyout proposal, he said.

Giffen said that aside from a few ranchers in the Southwest who support the buyout, the Forest Service has heard little input from ranchers on the proposal. "It hasn't seemed to be a big issue coming into this office."

There are about 25,000 ranchers throughout the West, and in all likelihood, a lot more of them will have to back the proposal before the bills begin to gain momentum in Congress, supporters acknowledge. Members will need to hear directly from ranchers who support the buyout.

But many ranchers prefer to keep to themselves and not get involved, Groom said.

"I've made about 15 or 20 calls," he said. "They think it's a great idea, but they're not going to put themselves out. People feel like what's going to happen will happen."

"Being for it is not a comfortable place to be in," Whitney said. "The National Cattlemen's Beef Association is against it, the Arizona Cattlemen's Association is against it, the agencies are against it."

Even so, Groom is optimistic that eventually, the legislation will pass. But he also worries that the big agricultural corporations -- ConAgra Foods Inc., Archer Daniels Midland Co., J.R. Simplot Co. and others -- will abuse the system. Before a buyout goes into effect, a company could come in, buy the rancher's operation and then sell it back to the government at a profit, Groom said. The bills should be revised to include a provision that would prohibit those kinds of exchanges, Groom added.

Within the environmental community, some longtime grazing critics are hesitant to pay ranchers to stop grazing, which they say rewards destructive behavior. Others accustomed to addressing grazing conflicts in court are wary of taking a legislative approach, which could take several years.

"Despite the work you're doing, this isn't going to happen next year," Randy Moorman, a legislative research associate for Earthjustice, told Kerr during a break in the grazing tour. "We need a buyout now. Species are going extinct now."

So far, the national legislation has 22 cosponsors -- most of them Democrats -- and other congressional leaders are considering lending their support, including Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) and Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.).

"I like the idea," said McCollum, who took part in the grazing tour. But McCollum said she has concerns about where the money would come from. And subsidies for water improvements and other operational costs would still be available to ranchers, she said.