2021 GRAZING FEES ON AMERICA'S PUBLIC LANDS REMAIN AT LEGAL ROCK BOTTOM: $1.35 per animal unit month (AUM)
Today the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service announced that 2021 federal grazing fees on national forests and grasslands will remain at $1.35 per animal unit month (AUM) — the lowest price allowed by law.
An animal unit month (AUM) is the use of public lands by a cow/calf pair, five goats or sheep, or by a single bull, steer, heifer, horse, burro, or mule. The fee will apply to nearly 18,000 grazing permits and leases administered by the Bureau of Land Management and nearly 6,250 permits administered by the Forest Service.
A CONFLICT WITH WILD HORSES AND WILDLIFE
Many grazing permits overlap with Herd Management Areas (HMA) where our wild horses and burros are legally entitled to graze under the statutes of the 1971 Wild and Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act. In addition to native predators such as cougars, bears and wolves, wild horses are continually targeted for removal because of conflicts with domestic livestock on public lands. Through lobbying and lawsuits, the American mustang has become both a target and a scapegoat for the livestock industry's agenda to dominate and control public lands for their own grazing use.
SUBSIDIZING WELFARE RANCHERS ON THE TAXPAYERS DIME
$1.35 per AUM is an outright giveaway to ranchers that graze millions of environmentally destructive cattle and sheep on America's public lands. In addition to the ecological cost, the program is funded by the U.S. taxpayers, estimated at $500 million to $1 billion per year. In contrast, the grazing fee on private lands in 16 western states is approximated at $22.00 a month.
The formula used for calculating the AUM grazing fee was established by Congress in the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act and as amended in the 1978 Public Rangelands Improvement Act and has continued under a presidential Executive Order issued in 1986. Under that Order, the grazing fee cannot fall below $1.35 per head month and any increase or decrease cannot exceed 25% of the previous year's level. The grazing fees apply to rangelands managed by both the USDA Forest Service and the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management.
Raising grazing fees would be a good start. The increased cost might encourage ranchers to find new ways to raise their animals instead of relying on subsidized use of public lands — and to protect fragile habitats in the process. In addition, federal legislation, the Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act, would provide grazing permit holders the option to voluntarily waive their permits to graze on federal lands in exchange for market value compensation paid by private parties. The federal agency would then be directed to retire the associated grazing allotment from further grazing activity.
The Trump administration has struck another blow to common-sense management of public lands in the West. Virtually all the spectacular country neighboring the Escalante River in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah will be reopened to cattle grazing, thanks to a new plan for managing the monument released by the Interior Department last month.
The move manages to be both anti-rancher and anti-environment.
Over the past few decades, similar deals around the West have sought to resolve conflicts between conservationists and ranchers running livestock on public lands by cooperation rather than confrontation and litigation.
In Nevada’s Great Basin National Park, for instance, ranchers who held public land grazing permits when the land became part of the park in 1986 agreed to relinquish their permits in return for being compensated by the Conservation Fund, a nonprofit conservation group.
These arrangements have attracted support from across the political spectrum. In 2001, George W. Bush’s libertarian interior secretary, Gale Norton, celebrated this approach as a “marketplace-oriented resolution for public land conflicts” — a win-win.
The labyrinthine canyon lands of the Escalante River, a magnet for adventuresome recreationists, show why the idea is such a good one. In the late 1990s, ranchers holding the grazing permits there decided they had had enough. One wanted to retire, one wanted to run his stock in less difficult terrain and a third wanted to move his operation to another state.
These willing sellers negotiated an agreement with the nonprofit Grand Canyon Trust to relinquish their grazing privileges for cash. The Utah State Division of Wildlife Resources then endorsed the idea of retiring the area from livestock grazing, Utah’s Republican governor, Michael Leavitt, signed off on it, and the Interior Department agreed, finding that it would restore a fragile and treasured gem to ecological health.
The effect on the local grazing economy was infinitesimal; over 96 percent of the original national monument remained open to grazing at the same level as before. (The area retired from grazing remained within the monument’s boundaries after President Trump drastically shrank it in 2017.)
This means ranchers — particularly those struggling to scratch out a living on hardscrabble desert lands where conservation buyers are often the only willing buyers of grazing privileges — will suffer alongside the environment.
The Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act (H.R.5737), legislation introduced in Congress by Adam Smith, a Democrat of Washington, and several co-sponsors would fix the problem, by protecting negotiated buyouts and permit retirements from the executive branch’s political whims.
Unfortunately, it faces an uphill battle. The national trade association of enterprises running livestock on public land, the Public Lands Council — seeking to preserve its membership and influence — fiercely resists retiring even a single acre of public land from grazing.
Perhaps the recklessness of the Interior Department’s latest decision will spur more members of Congress to support this sensible legislation that benefits ranchers while restoring public lands to health.
Source: NY Times Opinion, "A free-market solution to protect a spectacular landscape was working", by John Leshy.
Leshy was the general counsel at the Department of the Interior during the Clinton administration. He's also an emeritus professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law and the author of the forthcoming book “Our Common Ground,” a history of America’s public lands. He has been on the board of the Grand Canyon Trust since 2002.
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Congressman Adam Smith (D-WA) introduced the Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act, (H.R.5737) to reduce conflicts on federal public lands and increase flexibility for federal grazing permittees.
Livestock grazing on federal public lands conflicts with other multiple uses that can have impacts on wildlife habitat, wild horse HMA's and recreational opportunities. In many cases, simply removing livestock is the best solution to reduce or resolve these conflicts. However, current law and regulations either do not allow for the retirement of grazing permits or make the process unnecessarily difficult and uncertain.
The voluntary retirement of grazing permits authorized by the Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act (VGPRA) is the most cost-effective and equitable way to address this issue. It would provide grazing permit holders the option to voluntarily waive their permits to graze on federal lands in exchange for market value compensation paid by private parties. The federal agency would then be directed to retire the associated grazing allotment from further grazing activity.
As expected, the proposed law is opposed by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Public Lands Council, both industry groups, which contend that it would fly in the face of two previous acts of Congress enshrining grazing as part of a multi-pronged approach to public lands use.
“I don’t think that federal land management policy should be taken away from those line officers and range conservationists at the BLM and Forest Service in favor of third-party entities with their own agenda,” Tanner Beymer, associate director of government affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said.
Currently, environmental groups are allowed to purchase grazing permits from ranchers, but they cannot retire them without congressional authorization.
MONTH / yEAR