February 27, 2004

Tucson Citizen

Grazing permit buyout fair, will end range war

Guest Opinion

by A.J. Schneller and John Whitney III

Public lands ranchers in the arid Southwest are struggling through a severe drought. Stock tanks are dry, grasses are sparse, and livestock and wildlife are struggling to survive.

Additionally, urban sprawl pressures and off-road vehicles make worse an already dire situation for ranchers and the land. Many Arizona working ranches that have supported generations of families have had to suspend or greatly reduce cattle grazing. Public lands ranching is a dying business.

James Knorr's Feb. 20 letter - "Grijalva's bailout plan is wrong" - is insensitive to the plight of ranchers on public lands. Ranchers, land managers, scientists, Congress and conservationists are working diligently to overcome ranching hurdles in Arizona and across the West.

The national and Arizona voluntary grazing permit buyout bills, currently pending in Congress, offer a "win-win" solution for ranchers and the environment. A total of 180 Arizona ranchers and 190 environmental organizations are supporting the Arizona bill and a permanent buyout option, and the list of supporters is growing. Yet there are still uninformed naysayers who don't realize that the buyout will help ranchers, protect the environment, and save taxpayers money.

Opponents to the legislation fear that once ranchers receive the buyout payment, they'll likely sell off private base properties, thus accelerating land fragmentation and development. To the contrary, with the money ranchers receive from the buyout, they'll not only have money to keep their private property, but they can also buy other private lands to ranch.

Ranchers who continue to work with public lands will have new job opportunities such as wildlife and hunting guides, fishing, guest ranches, birding, etc. once the lands have been rested and restored. With ranchers' knowledge of the land and innate creativity, these areas will continue to produce a sustainable income.

The Arizona Grazing Permit Buyout Campaign is a coalition of Arizona ranchers, conservation and environmental groups who agree that permitees on federal lands should be given the option to relinquish their federal permits in exchange for federal compensation.

In October 2003, Reps. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., and Christopher Shays, R-Conn., introduced the Arizona Voluntary Grazing Permit Buyout Act that now potentially awaits a hearing in the House Resources Committee. After numerous visits by the campaign to Washington, D.C., it's a relief that Congress is starting to see past all the theories and paying attention to the on-the-ground reality.

For federal lands ranchers (Forest Service and BLM controlled) who see no end to their struggle, the decision whether or not to take a buyout would be entirely voluntary. They'll be paid a generous $175 per Animal Unit Month. For instance, if a rancher grazes 500 head of cattle for six months each year, they would receive about $525,000. The payment would cover all investment by the permittee in all range developments on federal land.

It must be noted that only about 25 percent of Arizona permitees are likely to opt for the buyout, at a cost of just $93 million. Compare that with the recent U.S. farm bill of $180 billion, and the recent drought relief bill of $9 billion.

The public lands grazing allotment would be permanently retired from livestock grazing upon receipt of this payment, and be given over entirely to wildlife, hunting and sustainable public uses as appropriate. No private property of the permittee, whether land, livestock, or water diversion rights would be affected.

The Whitney family's permit to graze the 158,000-acre Sunflower allotment on the Tonto National Forest has been closed for three years due to drought, and it's unlikely the allotment will ever produce again even if the drought ends. Many other Arizona ranchers are in similar situations. Ranchers have so much invested, and they really should get something back.

The grazing permit buyout is voluntary and fair, and it will help end the range war between ranchers and environmentalists. The buyout is the most clear-cut and fiscally conservative solution to this public lands conflict.

The Arizona Republic has already added its voice to the hundreds of ranchers and conservationists who support the buyout bill, stating: "If we are to conclude that cattle ranching in parts of Arizona has run its course, fairness dictates the ranchers who have invested generations to the industry be compensated. This proposal would do that fairly."

The Arizona congressional delegation should support this groundbreaking bill.

A.J. Schneller is education and outreach coordinator for the Center for Biological Diversity. John Whitney III is an Arizona public lands rancher. More information on the Grazing Permit Buyout Campaign can be found at www.azbuyout.org and www.publiclandsranching.org.