February 10, 2004

Nogales International Bulletin

Grazing permit buyout program meets needs of ranchers and supports environment

Guest Opinion
By U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva

A long-standing conflict between Arizona ranchers and conservationists is nearing a resolution, but the final step - gaining congressional approval - will be a formidable one.

More than 180 Arizona ranchers, headed by the John Whitney family of Sunflower, and 10 conservation, hunting and other interest groups, headed by the Center for Biological Diversity, have negotiated an innovative plan.

The plan would permanently retire some federal land from grazing and return it to recreational and natural uses. In exchange, the plan would compensate participating ranchers for the retirement of their livestock permits at an above fair market value rate.

The cooperation between the two groups, and the ground-breaking plan they have created, have paved the way for the bipartisan Arizona Voluntary Grazing Permit Buyout Act, which I introduced late last year with the co-sponsorship of Congressman Christopher Shays of Connecticut, a Republican.

Other Representatives from California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington have signed on as co-sponsors, and it is my hope that all of Arizona's delegation will follow suit. A similar bill covering the entire nation has been introduced, but I propose the Arizona plan as a pilot. If it works in Arizona, it will be easy to expand.

This moment is truly historic. Two sides of a divisive issue came together to solve a problem many believed unsolvable. Each party understood the other's needs and exhibited the patience required to talk out a possible solution.

As Taylor said, "We decided to stick with what we can agree upon. We set aside the things we can't agree on."

A plethora of variables were at play.

Environmentalists argued that the public land should be reserved for wildlife and low-impact recreational use. They pointed to government research showing that grazing erodes the soil and reduces habitat for native wildlife.

At the same time, ranchers have found it tougher and tougher to earn a living. Americans have been eating less beef and more chicken; a prolonged drought has meant cattle had to be removed from much of the range, and Canadian beef imports have increased following adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

More than 96 percent of U.S. beef production is on non-federal lands and cattle ranchers on public lands must compete with large feedlot operations.

The grazing permit buyout program would allow renewal of the land, making it friendlier to wildlife, natural growth and other environmentally sound uses. It would allow ranchers to restructure their operations or start a new business without being driven from what for many has been the family home for generations.

Some critics have contended that ranchers who release their grazing permits would be more likely to sell their private ranchlands, but private property owners can do that at any time. The permit buyout could strengthen a rancher's financial hand by allowing bank loans to be repaid and private property to be retained. The current economic situation is already forcing many ranchers to sell or subdivide to pay off their bank loans, causing land fragmentation and forcing ranchers from their private lands.

Participation in the program would be entirely voluntary. All 950 Arizona permit holders would qualify for payments of $175 per animal unit month.

For example, a rancher who grazes 200 head of cattle 12 months a year would be entitled to a one-time payment of $420,000. Members of the sponsoring coalition predict about 25 percent of Arizona ranchers would opt to take the buyout at a cost of $93 million. If all permit holders took the buyout, the total would be about $371 million.

Compare that to the $233 billion price tag of the recent U.S. farm bill (this covers the years 2002-2006).

Consider also that comparable programs have been made available to tobacco and peanut farmers, while cotton farmers once were paid not to farm so the soil could be rejuvenated. And the Conservation Reserve Program, which allows Midwestern grassland farmers to rest their private farm land in exchange for payment per acre, has obvious environmental benefits, too.

Taxpayers would achieve significant savings if the buyout succeeds on a national level. The grazing program runs a $124 million annual deficit because the fees are about 10 percent of the market rates and the program creates otherwise unnecessary expenses to deal with the impacts of livestock on the environment.

The buyout benefits are more than worth the comparatively low cost. Public land will be conserved, ranchers will be kept from bankruptcy and the federal government will save money.

* Grijalva represents Nogales and Rio Rico, along with part of Tucson and other communities, in the U.S. House of Representatives.