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.
DIRECT AND INDIRECT COSTS
Livestock production is not benign. Livestock pollute public waters with their waste. Livestock compact soils reducing infiltration. Their hooves break up biocrusts which hold the soil together and reduce wind erosion. They spread diseases to wildlife, for instance, pneumonia to bighorn sheep. They spread weeds. They eat forage that might otherwise support native herbivores from ground squirrels to elk. They socially displace native animals like elk from the best lands. We kill predators like wolves, cougars, bears, and coyotes to facilitate livestock operations. Fences on public lands block wildlife migrations, and serve a look out posts for avian predators that prey on sage grouse and other endangered species. Grazing can also reduce the capacity of soil to store carbon.
To add insult to injury, we charge ranchers a ridiculously low fee for grazing our public lands. Currently the fee is $1.35 an AUM (animal unit month) or the amount of forage a cow and calf can consume in a month. You could not feed a pet goldfish on $1.35 a month.
Range conservationists also have a financial vested interest in maintaining livestock grazing. If there are no cows or sheep on the land, there is no need for a range con. So, the range conservationists will do just about anything they can to maintain livestock even in the face of tremendous ecological damage. Since it’s not their money, they will propose new grazing management plans, new fencing, more water developments, more range riders, or whatever, to keep livestock on the range when in most cases, simply eliminating livestock is by far the best policy from both an economic and ecological perspective.
GRAZING PERMIT RETIREMENT
However, there is one mechanism that has the potential to free our public lands of the livestock scourge —livestock grazing permit retirement. The way permit retirement works the rancher volunteers to give up their public lands grazing privileges on a specific allotment in exchange for a predetermined amount of funding, The permit retirement is voluntary.
At this point in time the funds for such permit retirement have come from private sources including individuals and foundations, though it would be advantageous if public funding could be part of any legislation. In the past getting legislation that would apply to all public lands has been thwarted by livestock organizations.
The best way to guarantee permeance is to include grazing permit retirement language in any public lands including bill the creation of a new national monuments, national recreation areas, national parks, wilderness, or other similar legislation. For example, the legislation that created the Boulder White Cloud wilderness areas in central Idaho contained a clause authorizing the BLM and Forest Service to accept “donated” grazing permits. The permits would then be “permanently” retired.
One of the reasons this is critical is that permanent retirement gives much greater certainty that no future public lands administer can suddenly reauthorize livestock grazing. If part of a legislative package, it’s important to designate a specific area for grazing permit retirement and to include language that says any allotment that is part of the mapped designated retirement area can be included as well.
In the above example of the Boulder White Cloud legislation, while the total amount of new wilderness was approximately a quarter of a million acres, the mapped footprint for grazing retirement is nearly 750,000 acres. Thus far grazing by livestock as a result of permit retirement has been eliminated on 100,000 acres in the Boulder White Clouds.
Currently there is legislation being reintroduced into Congress to create new public lands designation, including three wilderness bills for California, several wilderness bills in Colorado and the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act that would protect lands in five western states. These and other new land protection designations should all include voluntary grazing permit language.
During the planning process for both BLM and the Forest Service, the public can demand that grazing permit retirement be part of any updated management plans. In the absence of overall legislation that would remove private livestock from all public lands, permit retirement is the best way to gradually extinguish livestock impacts on public lands heritage.