August 15, 2004

Medford Mail Tribune

Buy out grazing on the monument
Ranchers and conservationists agree; our representatives should as well

A year ago, we said the federal government should offer to buy out grazing leases owned by ranchers running cattle on the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. Now, those ranchers, together with environmentalists, are proposing just such a solution.

Oregon's congressional delegation should get behind this proposal and find a way to make it work.

The issue of cattle grazing on public land has long been a contentious one, but especially so in the case of the national monument. Scientists say the area where the Cascade, Siskiyou and Klamath mountain ranges converge is home to unique plants and animals.

Monument supporters say cattle damage the fragile soils, foul streams and disturb native plants. Ranchers counter that grazing actually benefits the area by stimulating plant growth.

Under the terms of the proclamation creating the monument, the Bureau of Land Management is conducting a study to determine whether grazing is compatible with the monument's purpose. Should that study find that grazing is harmful, the government could retire the grazing allotments, some of which date back for generations.

Realizing their days of running cattle on this land may be numbered, the ranchers are offering a compromise that could let them continue raising cattle by allowing them to acquire other grazing land.

The big question mark is the price tag.

The ranchers want "replacement value" for their leases. That means much more than what they now pay.

Ranchers pay $1.35 for one "animal unit month" - a cow and calf grazing for one month. Enough money to buy pasture land to support their animals in the dry months would be considerably more than that.

Ranchers put cattle on the monument in the summertime when dryland pasture no longer provides nutritious forage. The alternative is irrigated pasture - a far more costly proposition.

The government says - and courts have backed up this position - that grazing leases are not property rights, but a privilege granted by the government for private use of public land. The ranchers insist the grazing permits are property for which they should be compensated.

It's hard to see how a permit to use public land for one's personal profit is a property right. At the same time, AUMs do have monetary value. When a private ranch adjacent to public land is sold, AUMs change hands along with the land and are figured in the sale price.

So the equitable solution, it seems to us, is to work out a price that the ranchers will accept and that the government is willing to pay. If conservation groups want to chip in some cash - as local and state ranchers' groups have suggested - so much the better.

The key to working this out is support from all members of the state's congressional delegation.