October 21, 2003

The Salt Lake Tribune

Grazing buyout bills are floated

by Brent Israelsen

A bipartisan pair of congressmen on Monday introduced two pilot bills in Congress they say could resolve livestock grazing conflicts in the West.

The bills -- one that applies to grazing on all public lands and one that deals specifically with Arizona -- would provide federal money to buy grazing permits from ranchers. Participation would be voluntary.

Once the grazing permits were purchased, the lands where the livestock once roamed would be permanently closed to sheep and cows, leaving more forage for wild critters.

Already controversial and likely to gain little traction in the near term, the bills, sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., are intended as a federal experiment in an effort already under way by various environmental groups that peddle "willing-buyer, willing-seller" offers to buy out ranchers' grazing permits.

"The voluntary buyout, and I stress the word voluntary, is that proverbial win-win solution to the largest public lands issue in the West," said Keith Raether, spokesman for the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, an environmental group that developed the legislation.

Raether said the legislation would give ranchers a "safety net, a way out of a failing industry."

The bills also would give environmental groups a powerful tool in removing cattle and sheep from the nation's forests and rangelands, which are becoming increasingly valued by the public for their natural resources.

Unlike in previous efforts toward that end, this time environmentalists are using the carrot rather than the stick approach.

And they are gaining rancher allies in the process.

In Arizona, more than 70 percent of public-lands ranchers support the buyout proposal, said rancher John Whitney IV, co-chairman of the Arizona Grazing Buyout Campaign, who conducted a written survey.

A southern Utah cattleman told The Salt Lake Tribune last month that two out of three of his colleagues support the idea.

But the Utah Cattlemen's Association, which has 500 members, most of them public-lands ranchers, probably will oppose the legislation, said the group's vice president, Brent Tanner.

"One of the main concerns is that it will affect not only the ranching community but a lot of the small communities who are very dependent on ranching," Tanner said.

Agriculture, of which ranching is just a part, represents just 1 percent of Utah's economy.

The association is expected to take an official position on the buyout legislation during its annual convention in December.

Whitney said Western cattle associations are out of touch with the full-time ranchers on this issue.

"The association would just let their members wither out on the range and die. I'm not willing to sit by and let that happen," said Whitney, whose father is among the largest holders of public-lands grazing permits in the Grand Canyon State.

The buyout bills would pay ranchers $175 per "animal-unit month" (AUM), a grazing-permit measurement of the amount of forage consumed by a cow and her calf in one month.

That sum would give ranchers a significant incentive to participate. In Utah, AUMs are currently selling for between $40 and $130 on the open market.
Whitney said many ranchers would use the $175 windfall to purchase private lands and move their ranching operation there.

The buyout bills carry a hefty price tag for the taxpayer, though. With 18 million AUMs held by 25,000 ranchers around the West, a total buyout could cost the treasury $3.2 billion.

The pilot bills, however, are seeking only a $100 million appropriation to test rancher interest.

Environmentalists say that in the long run, the treasury will save money, arguing the federal grazing program costs taxpayers about $500 million a year.