July 23, 2002


  Andy Kerr, NPLGC director (503-701-6298 or

Support Builds for Voluntary Grazing Buyout Proposal

Cal Worthington built an automobile empire in Southern California with more than horse sense. So when Worthington talks about his other business, ranching, livestock operators across the West listen.

Worthington, a public lands rancher with U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management grazing permits in Nevada, believes a new, voluntary buyout proposal for federal grazing permittees is "a very good proposal . . . a good way and a fair way" to compensate ranchers.

The National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, a coalition of conservation organizations in the West, proposes that Congress adopt a buyout program to compensate grazing permittees who voluntarily relinquish their public lands leases. The plan is already endorsed by more than 100 conservation groups nationwide.

Max Howrey, 65, a rancher from Story, Wyo., who bought 500 acres of land in 1958 and never looked back, now looks ahead. What he sees are hard times and an eventual end to ranching on public lands. "I can see what's coming down the road, and I feel like it's a good thing to move on," he said. "I know others will come around to the (NPLGC) proposal. It's more than fair."

Congressional leaders are also weighing the proposal and voicing their support of a voluntary buyout. At a recent conference organized by the Idaho Conservation League, U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) said the voluntary program serves conservationists and ranchers. "If we get together and collaborate, we can get results that are higher for the environment and higher for the economy . . . and everybody wins," Crapo said. "(The voluntary federal grazing permit buyout program) is an example of a win-win idea."

In May the NPLGC sent letters outlining the proposal to nearly 26,000 public lands ranchers. Hundreds of permittees have since contacted NPLGC steering committee groups about participation in the program.

"Looking at it from the outside, I feel it's a good thing to move on," said Howrey, who has two sons, one who ranches and one who works for General Dynamics in Arizona."It'll be a long process , but it's something that needs to be done."

Terry Reidhead, who ranches on federal lands in Nutrioso, Ariz., near the border of New Mexico, is "very interested" in the buyout after 23 years in the business. "I think it fits some of the allotments to a T, especially where intense wildlife and recreation are involved," he said.

The NPLGC proposal would pay federal permittees more than three times market value to relinquish their grazing permits. The average market value in the West of a federal animal unit month (AUM) is $40. 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 $262,000.

In a letter to NPLGC steering committee groups, Worthington predicted "a large majority of the ranchers will elect to sell their grazing privileges back to the government."

While the Idaho Cattle Association opposes "the programmatic removal of livestock grazing on public rangeland," the group supports "the right of individual grazing permittees to sell their federal grazing permits."

"We appreciate the environmentalists for recognizing that grazing permits have value," ICA spokesman Chuck Jones told the Capital Press.

Time magazine estimates that 328,000 ranchers and farmers will lose their jobs in this decade alone. Phone operators, a distant second on the casualty list, are expected to decline by 60,000.

One public lands rancher who runs 3,000-plus head of cattle in southern Utah believes the voluntary buyout is "a humane way of taking care of a tough situation." He says the biggest hurdle for ranchers is cultural , not economic.

"I think the way-of-life issue has a lot to do with it," he said. "When people are used to doing one thing generation after generation, they don't think about what else they might want to do. To tell you the truth, most people I know in this business would relish getting out if they could do it with dignity and some cash in hand."

Some opponents of the buyout proposal argue that open space will be lost if federal permitees give up their public lands grazing privileges. They contend ranching prevents sprawl.

But conservationists point out that sprawl is driven by the demand for housing and acreage, not the supply of land available for it.Thoughtful land-use planning can stall sprawl and save open space. State or federal government can broker conservation easements and amend policies that favor wasteful consumption.

"If it is the goal of government to subsidize private landowners to maintain open space, it will only work if the subsidies are conditioned to prevent development as in the case of a conservation easement," said Andy Kerr, director of the NPLGC and a leader of the successful spotted-owl campaign. "Unconditional subsidies of public lands grazing in the hopes that a permittee won't go broke, sell out or die, don't work in the end."

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 a former federal grazing permittee in Idaho. "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. 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 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."

"To protect endangered species and ensure water quality on public lands, the federal government encourages citizens to sue violators, even the government itself," said Kerr. "The 'stick' approach is important, but environmentalists also want the government to implement the 'carrot' approach."

Susan Robinson runs 5,300 sheep on four grazing allotments, three in Colorado and one in Utah. She supports the voluntary buyout, adding that Forest Service and BLM officials have told her they are willing to retire the allotments even though the decision requires a change in agency policy.

Some ranching industry representatives maintain that an end to public lands ranching will cause the collapse of rural communities in the West. Labor statistics, however, tell a different story. In Idaho, for example, public lands ranchers account for only one-sixth of 1 percent of all jobs. Other states in the West reflect similar figures.

"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."

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.