April 10, 2002


  Andy Kerr, NPLGC director (503-701-6298 or
  Keith Raether, NPLGC public information coordinator (208-788-2290 or

Environmentalists Propose Voluntary Buyout to 25,000 Public Lands Ranchers

From Yuma, Ariz., to Malta, Mont., 25,000 public lands ranchers today were put on notice by environmentalists.

But the notice they received is anything but punitive. In a letter from the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign (NPLGC), federal grazing permittees across the country learned of a voluntary compensation proposal that could save them from tough economic times, a losing occupation and a vanishing way of life.

The NPLGC proposes that Congress establish a buyout program to compensate grazing permittees who voluntarily relinquish their public lands leases. The plan is already endorsed by 85 environmental groups nationwide.

"I've often thought the livestock industry would be better served without public-lands grazing," said an Idaho cattleman who gave up his federal permits several years ago. "Whenever you subsidize an industry, as in the case of livestock grazing on federal lands, you create inefficiency. You paint a false picture of demand for the product."

The NPLGC proposal would pay federal permittees more than twice market rate to voluntarily relinquish their grazing permits. The average market value in the West of a federal animal unit month (AUM) is $50-$75. The new proposal would compensate permittees at a fixed price of $175 per AUM.

Under the plan, a permittee with 300 cow/calf pairs that graze public lands for five months of the year would receive upwards of $262,000.

"To protect endangered species and protect water quality on public lands, the federal government encourages citizens to sue violators, even the government itself," said Andy Kerr, director of the NPLGC and a leader of the successful spotted-owl campaign. "The 'stick' approach is important, but environmentalists also want the government to implement a 'carrot' approach."

The NPLGC proposal would effectively retire a federal welfare program that costs American taxpayers about $500 million annually to subsidize public lands ranching operations. It would also diminish decades of environmental destruction wrought by livestock grazing.

"An awful lot of demands have been put on our public lands, and grazing might be the biggest," said the former federal grazing permittee, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's time we gave these lands some consideration."

Scientific studies show that livestock grazing is the most pervasive and destructive use of federal lands in the West. Livestock grazing threatens native species, reduces water quality, spreads noxious weeds, alters natural fire regimes and accelerates soil erosion, destroying streamside and upland ecosystems.

About 80 percent of all streams and riparian ecosystems in the arid West are severely degraded by livestock grazing. Some 175 plant and animal species, from sage grouse to grizzly bears, are threatened or endangered, all or in part, by grazing on federal rangelands. In 1999 alone, 95,862 wild animals were killed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services in predator control programs to protect livestock.

In its Global 2000 report, the Council on Environmental Quality noted that "improvident grazing . . . has been the most potent desertification force, in terms of total acreage (351,562 square miles) within the United States."

The economic picture for grazing permittees on public lands is no rosier. A recent study cited in the Journal of Range Management concludes that ranching operations "had a return rate that ranged from negative to 1 or 2 percent . . . ." Beef produced from federal rangelands accounts for less than 3 percent of total production in the United States. Imported beef and inherently low productivity from public lands grazing are putting a financial squeeze on federal permittees across the country.

The Bureau of Land Management's report "Rangeland Reform" (1994) notes that only 3 percent of livestock producers in the United States hold federal grazing permits. As recently as 1999, public lands ranching accounted for a scant .04 percent of all income and .06 percent of all employment in the West. This amounts to only few months of typical growth of income and employment.

And yet public lands grazing costs American taxpayers upwards of half a billion dollars every year in direct program costs. Related expenses for emergency feed, drought and flood relief, predator control and other costs to support grazing or mitigate its impacts are not included in this figure.

Federal grazing lands comprise 257 million acres in the U.S. Under current law, public lands permittees are not compensated when allotments are closed to protect natural resources. No property rights are vested in federal grazing permits; the permits are revocable privileges.

"On federal lands . . . a rancher can graze a cow and calf for a full month for the price of a can of dog food," noted Los Angeles Times columnist John Balzar in a recent editorial. "Despite these bargain rates, or maybe because of them, too much of their range land has been mistreated, overgrazed, beaten down and polluted. . . . Reform of the vast grazing program is long overdue."

Under the NPLGC proposal, compensating all federal grazing permittees at a rate of $175 per AUM would initially cost taxpayers about $3.3 billion. But the net savings of the program would be between $5.5 billion and $11 billion.

"Federal grazing permit buyouts are ecologically imperative, economically rational, fiscally prudent, socially compassionate and politically pragmatic," said Kerr. "It's a win-win-win for permittees, taxpayers and the environment."

In the NPLGC proposal, conservation-minded grazing permittees see a practical solution to an impractical occupation and unsustainable way of life.

"Over the years I've felt we'd see an end to public lands grazing sooner rather than later," said the Idaho permittee. "It's time to face the fact that the old West is a thing of the past."

Kerr anticipates a more positive reaction to the NPLGC proposal from public lands cattle industry members than from industry leaders. "Because public lands grazing is increasingly problematic, we anticipate that a lot of permittees will want to take a buyout," he said. "Public lands grazing industry leaders, because they are leaders, tend to be more psychologically, socially and financially invested and are generally reluctant about providing a voluntary buyout for those they lead."

The NPLGC includes steering committee members American Lands Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, Committee for Idaho's High Desert, Forest Guardians, Oregon Natural Desert Association and Western Watersheds Project.