July 15, 2005

Public Lands News

Campaign to buy out grazing permits takes several faces

Although eight House members introduced legislation last month to establish a national program to buy out federal grazing permits, the backers of the concept say that is not where the real action is.

"Most of the action is on site-specific discussions that are now going on," said Andy Kerr, director of the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign. He mentioned three real and potential other pieces of legislation - a central Idaho land management bill, a possible bill to buy out ranchers in Oregon and an upcoming bill to authorize buy-outs in Arizona.

The idea behind the proposal is simple - pay ranchers a set fee not to graze on the public lands, perhaps $175 per animal unit month (AUM), based on the average number of AUMs a permittee held during the previous 10 years.

While environmentalists and some individual ranchers support the idea, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the Public Lands Council oppose it. "We're unconcerned (about the legislation)," said Jeff Eisenberg, executive director of the Public Lands Council. "We think it's bad policy."

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) June 30 introduced his buy-out bill (HR 3166) from the last Congress, along with seven cosponsors. The measure would establish a $100 million pilot program to authorize the federal government to acquire public lands grazing permits. Not cosponsoring HR 3166 this year, at least thus far, is Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.). His positions on the environment frequently place him at cross-purposes with House Republican leaders.

If a national program were established and all ranchers sold out, it would cost $3.1 billion in appropriations, the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign says. But it would save the government more than $15 billion in subsidies, or $12.6 billion net, the campaign says.

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) has sponsored legislation (HR 2514) that has gained the most early traction on permit buy-outs. The Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act would authorize up to $7 million to acquire permits, if BLM or the Forest Service reduced allotments. In describing the bill Simpson said, "The economic compensation program is entirely voluntary." Among other things the Simpson bill would designate 300,000 acres of wilderness on Forest Service and BLM land.

Separately, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) is reportedly discussing a buy-out program with a dozen ranchers who hold grazing leases on BLM land in the neighborhood of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon. They wrote Smith last year and asked him to support legislation to authorize federal acquisition of their leases for "fair and equitable compensation." They defined fair compensation as replacement cost for their forage. That would enable them to acquire private land to keep their livestock operations in business.

Smith is reviewing the situation, his office said this week. "At this point in the negotiating process Sen. Smith is bringing people together," said a Smith staff member. "He is bringing farmers and environmentalists together and looking at formulating something."

Finally, Rep. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) is expected to introduce shortly a second buy-out bill that would apply just to Arizona. When Grijalva introduced the bill in the last Congress it did not include a price tag.