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Home » New West Network Topics » Food & Agriculture » A Failed Push to Raise Fees Begs the Question: Is Public-Lands Grazing Helpful or Harmful?
The Obama administration recently rejected a petition from several environmental groups asking to raise the fees for ranchers whose animals graze on public lands. But the fight's far from over. Currently, ranchers can pay $1.35 for each cow or calf eating grass on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service. A report from the Government Accounting Office, however, shows the actual cost of administrating public lands grazing is about $7 per animal. According to Taylor McKinnon, the public lands director for the Center for Biological Diversity, taxpayers shouldn’t have to supply the $115 million gap between what's paid by ranchers and what grazing costs the public. His organization is among those petitioning the federal government.

A Failed Push to Raise Fees Begs the Question: Is Public-Lands Grazing Helpful or Harmful?

The Obama administration recently rejected a petition from several environmental groups asking to raise the fees for ranchers whose animals graze on public lands. But the fight’s far from over.

Currently, ranchers can pay $1.35 for each cow or calf eating grass on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service. A report from the Government Accounting Office, however, shows the actual cost of administrating public lands grazing is about $7 per animal.

According to Taylor McKinnon, the public lands director for the Center for Biological Diversity, taxpayers shouldn’t have to supply the $115 million gap between what’s paid by ranchers and what grazing costs the public. His organization is among those petitioning the federal government.

The goal, he said, is to raise the grazing fee to the point of covering BLM and forest service administrative costs, as well as “the cost of correcting environmental damage,” he said.

“Livestock grazing alters ecosystems,” said McKinnon. He points to a 1994 study published in “Conservation Biology” that links livestock grazing to soil erosion, stream degradation, water pollution, species imperilment and fire regime alteration. “In total,” he said, “it’s an ecological and economic loser.”

McKinnon said the problem is especially pervasive in Arizona, which is ranked highest in the U.S. for regions that have endangered species because of livestock grazing. Animals including sage grouse, bighorn sheep and grizzly bears are said to be hurt by livestock grazing.

But ranchers and the BLM say, if managed, livestock grazing is beneficial.

Kim Baker is president of the Montana Cattlemen’s Association. She said she and most ranchers rotate their cattle to make sure they’re not overusing an area. “Ranchers have always been good stewards of the land,” she said. “We understand that if we destroy an area, it takes a long time to rebuild it.”

If grazing fees were raised, Baker said it would hurt ranchers. “When you’re grazing in the forest, I gotta tell you, it’s not just like taking your cattle out to an irrigated meadow,” she said. Baker said ranchers who graze their cattle on public lands deal with rough terrain, weeds and wolves. A higher cost wouldn’t be worth it for most, she said.

Further, Baker believes cattle help reduce forest fires by grazing on the dry grasses that often fuel blazes. And, she said, cattle encourage wildlife by removing dead foliage. After moving cattle from the pasture around her house, Baker has watched deer and elk move into the area to feed. “I really think public-lands grazing is very beneficial for the wildlife, and also for the sake of fires and for ranchers,” she said.

BLM spokesman Tom Gorey agrees with those benefits to grazing and adds one more: controlling invasive species.

Where the Center for Biological Diversity’s McKinnon points to soil erosion and damage to trees and plans as harming endangered species, the BLM’s Gorey talks about a Nevada rancher who, in 2010, one an annual award for rangeland stewardship for improving sage-grouse habitat on his grazing lands.

Gorey added it’s important to remember that grazing is an authorized use of public land. “If you want to ban grazing, you should work for a legislative solution,” he said.

The BLM and Forest Service both issued official statements denying the petition because they have higher priority issues. McKinnon’s position, essentially, is they’re shooting themselves in the feet. “If their agencies recouped lost revenues, if those agencies revised the fee, they would have a lot of money left over,” he said.

The denial has the groups planning their next effort. “We’re considering legal action,” he said.

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  1. The facts support both sides? Or do you mean, both sides are able to make statements that they say support their case? I have seen numerous studies and citations to studies that show the damaging effect of grazing on our public lands and waters–all I see from the pro-grazing side are statements about stewardship and “we think it’s beneficial.” Even if one were to accept that their cows are making the land better, which I do not–would we ever be getting seven bucks worth of value?

    It is ludicrous that at this point in our history, with all of the threats to our public lands, endangered species, and water, we remain somehow beholden to these people.

  2. People who cut trees (log) on public land have to pay for the trees.

    People who use developed recreation spots on the public lands have to pay fees.

    Livestock owners pay a “grazing fee,” but it is so low it is just a token — $1.35 to graze a cow and calf for an entire month. You probably pay $10 a night just to camp in a site with a table and a fire pit.

    If these livestock owners had to rent private land to graze, they would pay ten times what they do on our public lands. The public land grazers are a privileged few out of all those who run cattle (or sheep). There is no reason other than politics why certain people should enjoy what amounts to free grazing while the rest pay.

    More generally, as more and more people have less and less in the is country, and a favored few have more and more, people are becoming angry about the unfairness of it all.

  3. Todd,

    Subsidizing some beef growers at the expense of others (those who use private land) does affect the price of beef in any positive way.

  4. Excuse me. I meant it does NOT affect the price of beef in any positive way. Economic inefficiency probably raises the price of beef.

  5. Todd,

    You sound like you might be a person who grazes nearly for free yourself by your little statement about it being a hard concept for those who have never produced anything.

    This is not about food production in general. It is about one class of food producers who are coddled and subsidized by the taxpayers and another group who rely on their private lands and pay the full costs of production.

    The people in my family who raise cows bought their own land and raise their own hay and/or buy it on the market if the alfalfa crop was short.

  6. It’s interesting that a BLM spokesman says that livestock grazing is beneficial to controlling invasive species when he knows full well that it is actually the agent that disturbs the soils so that invasive species can gain a foothold in the first place. They often are responsible for bringing the seed of the invasive species to the landscape either in their fur or their feces. All of the associated roads and activities also bring invasive species. It’s a self perpetuating problem. Bring invasive species so we have to graze the land to death to get rid of invasive species. Oh, and by the way, we have to pay rancher for that too.

    It’s one big sham.

  7. Ranchers should not be charged fees to graze on public lands………they should be payed for the great land improvement they do for the public. Grasslands can NOT be sustained…..long term……..without being grazed.

  8. Not all ranchers support, or indulge in this form of corporate welfare. Food producers need to be responsible business people, and a lot of grazing is far from responsible. These are public lands, and should not be used to subsidize income for a select few.

  9. From a report at Oregon State by Patricia Muir. You can spend your time killing the messenger but it might also be useful to consider her numbers:


    What percentage of US beef production relies, at least in part on these western public rangelends? Well, this question is very difficult to answer, in part because many western livestock owners use not only public but also private grazing lands, and because cattle spend various proportions of their feeding lives on the public lands. Suffice it to say, however, that the percentage is probably quite small (significantly less than 10%; probably between 2% and 4%). Consider the following:

    * It takes about 10 times more land to produce a given weight of cow in the western US than in East.
    * Nevada produces the same amount of meat from its public lands as tiny Vermont does overall.
    * Missouri produces more beef than Montana despite Montana’s huge acreage devoted to livestock.

    Basically, much degradation of western public rangelands has taken place for a small percentage of our beef production. (Recall that less than 7% of all western livestock producers actually use these western public lands, with their use dominated by a few big ranchers, who control about 74-78% of the forage.)

  10. I don’t know much about this subject but, knowing what I know, I would love to know how much of that $7 dollars cost is to defend law suits from the Center for Biodiversity and Earth Justice. My cousin says that if they are spending more than what she pays to run her cattle on unfriendly predator ridden land the whole program needs to be gutted to make it more cost effective….for there is very little bookwork and oversight for her lease.

  11. “Unfriendly predator ridden land”? Wow.

  12. Wow! is right. Reality is clearly fantasy driven.

  13. Reality Check - $1.35 per acre is socialism

    $1.35 per acre is government-sponsored welfare! Any rancher who grazes on public land should own up to the fact that they are on welfare and should admit that they are in fact socialists. Ranchers are terrible stewards of the land, hence the need for grazing regulations. 100 years ago it was the ranchers that caused the dust bowl and forced the goverments hand to control land. If ranchers werent so greedy the land wouldnt be in the shape is is today. And if ranchers were true americans and tru capitalists, they would realize the error in their ways. They call themselves republicans. But any self-respecting republican will tell you that accepting a less-than-fair-market government subsidy is socialism in its most basic form. Why cant you people see that subsidized failing ranches is ruining this Country. The ranching community should be ashamed!!!!. Cowboy up! Stop whining! Pay your fair share, stop taking handouts from the BLM and USFS, and join the rest of us in capitalist America. If your ranch fails, it means you don’t know what you’re doing and you should probably find a different line of work. Thats how capitalism works. If you don’t like, go raise your cows in France or Russian.

  14. Regarding the price of beef, less than 3% of the beef consumed in this country ever sets foot on public land, yet cattle are indisputably the most ubiquitous impact on public lands, far beyond the impacts of oil and gas, ORVs, or logging. There are fewer than 23,000 permittees in the country, which means this small-town’s worth of individuals (and corporate entities) also have a far greater “hold” on our public lands than anything else. They ought to be able to pay their way or get out of the cow business.

  15. The reality of serious raising of cattle today is the corporation. I don’t like that, but it’s true.

    For these corporations this tiny grazing fee is nothing, but I think they are willing to use the issue to hide the facts of our situation. I mean most individuals who raise cattle today do it as a part time job and maybe as a hobby. You can’t make a complete living running cattle today as an individual, but oh how we love our illusions!

  16. Dang, according to Mostly Mike I’m an illusion. I do make a living ranching, and not part time. There are those of us out there. Don’t assume we don’t exist. Those who I know making a living in this business aren’t Huge operations who feed the feedlots. We just want to make a living, not a killing. That’s the biggest difference between me and the big fellas. And, I don’t need any government hand-outs to do it, either.

  17. Oh, but Todd, didn’t you know the strategy is to render the ranches absolutely worthless as base property, where the only buyers will be rich urbanite liberal escapee fantasists? Think about it. Make a donation to Western Watersheds, they’ll sue the saddle off the rancher you want to drill down, and when he or she is busted down to nothing and the PRICE is busted down to nothing, move on in CHEAP!
    ESPECIALLY if you put a “conservation easement” on the property. Then only trophy greens will ever be able to afford to live there and appreciate the West as the holy temple of Gaia that it is.

  18. Yes, Dave Skinner. How about an answer?

    My daughter and her husband have full time jobs, but they bought pasture land to graze on, and more land to grow alfalfa. They live close to the national forest in Utah. The have no nearly free federal grazing permit. They pay all their costs.

    Why should they compete with free grazers? What is the justification for that?

  19. Todd,

    That is an important point you make.

    I know that public grazing leases on federal land have what is sometimes called “a shadow value.” I figure that means that while the grazer doesn’t own the federal land, the value of the lease usually shows up anyhow in the selling price for the deeded (or base) property.

    This extra value of the deeded land does make the actual cost of grazing the federal land greater.

    Those who know about grazing rights know it’s not simple. Here in Idaho some base property is tiny, yet it controls many thousands of acres of public grazing leases from maybe a 20-acre base.

    Then there are those grazing associations who run their cattle in common on a grazing allotment. That is a nightmare for the members because there are those who do a good job and there are slackers. Kind of saps your motivation to do a good job. How the cost of their property figures in, I don’t know.

    Anyway, thanks for adding your example.

  20. For years now, public land grazers have battled against the perception that livestock grazing is harmful to rangelands. Admittedly, in some cases, the critics have identified areas where public land grazing needs to be improved. In these instances, the problem is not that grazing is occurring, but rather that the grazing system needs to be improved. Time controlled grazing, rotational grazing, or intensive grazing are terms used for a method of grazing yielding positive results everywhere it is implemented correctly. One positive result is improved wildlife habitat.

  21. The shindy bench guzzler candy bar. Ingredients :$12000.00 , Grazing Improvement Board, Grazer, Sportsmen for Wildlife. $0.00 ,B.L.M. and federal tax payer. Taste: allotment is grazed at 50% use for 20 days. Water and feed is utilized by wildlife for the remained of the year!

  22. Jeff, the one is shopping in a different candy store than the second. Private and public ground are apples and oranges when it comes to overhead and product.
    I suppose you COULD go to a “market value” AUM policy, with a kickback or credit for installation and maintenance of improvements. And, if the permitting process was constrained to a reasonable level, both the rancher AND the agency could make a profit.
    But I would want to make sure there were provisions in enabling laws to prevent predatory bidding such as Marvelous has attempted in Idaho, and I would also demand that grazing (or at least the revenue stream) be recognized as appropriate and expected.
    I’m sorry, but I like cows. I like eating them, I like looking at them, I like chasing them with horses and wheeled toys, and I like the people that raise them, too. Cattle have a place on public lands as well as private.

  23. Pretty simple. Put all grazing permits up for auction starting at a reasonable cost and let the free market determine their value.


  24. The benefits of public grazing are much more than the $1.35 per cow/calf. Taxable valuations of cattle also keep people in business who pay TAXES to sustain towns and cities. Much more is at stake than your so called subsidy.

    Take the cows off the public lands and you have no money for management.

  25. I don’t live in MT, altho I visit lots because my kids and grandkids live there. (I live in AZ, which obviously has its own problems, including almost-free grazing for politically well-connected ranchers.) I’ve read every one of these posts because I’m very interested in this topic. Nobody cares, but here’s my opinion: NO MORE COWS on public land. NO MORE WELFARE for rich guys. Cost of beef going up? Tough. Eat less beef. We should anyway.

    Go forth and enjoy OUR park land. Hugs to you all.

  26. Hmmm, who pays for the legal fees of the wolf propaganda machine? who pays for the subsidized low income housing for people in the cities?

    What comes around, goes around

    I would much rather see cows on public land that are utilized by PEOPLE and provide a tax base for those living in the areas involved.

  27. Government cost? What would government know about cost??

    We are in a deep recession. Asset values have plummeted by 40% across the board. Wages are stagnant. Costs have dropped. Still we have no rebound, and millions can’t find a job.

    So here is the dilemma in Oregon for State legislators and administrators for the upcoming biennium budget for 2012-13.

    The current budget, for 2010-11, is $13.6 Billion (knowing we are only talking about the part of the budget legislators can fix or harm). The forecast income, revenue, for the next biennium is $14.8 billion. And according to the Governor’s office, and the State Treasurer, that is $3.5 Billion short of what is needed to meet the obligations of a State that has a constitutionally required balanced budget. They can’t borrow to spend, unlike Congress. So you see that the State is anticipating $1.2 Billion in additional revenues, and is still $3.5 Billion shot of meeting obligations. You add $1.2 + $3.5 = $4.7 billion, which is the shortfall in a biting recession, with more money coming in for the next biennium. Or, a 35% budget rise in two short years. In a recession. Don’t even tell me about “it cost the government…” The Government has no idea of cost, and since it has no bottom line, no end of mission when you run out of money, no fatal economic blow suffered, they merrily add up numbers as they see fit and call that costs. They have no idea of costs, and we have no idea of what they consider costs. All of which you can look up in some multi thousand page document called “the budget.”

    What you pay to use an allotment has no basis in reason. And that does not make it criminal or unfair or bad business. It is the government $700 toilet seat, the $45 bolt you can buy for two bits at the Ace hardware. It is government, for crimeny sakes.

    The bad deal about grazing leases is when there is a unilateral decision based on nothing to end one. Permanently. One that has been ongoing since the inception of the Taylor Grazing Act. You are killing an economic unit. And we have killed so many in this country that we are broke, our government is broke (borrowing $0.41 of every dollar spent is broke, Dude!!!), rescinding grazing leases for whatever reason short of fraud or theft, is not good for the US at this time. It is a bad deal.

    I am from Oregon, and the end of logging on the Federal land broke our state. It is tits up, and sinking. Portland might be weird, but that is just because the Feds have spent enough money there to keep unemployed single educated people in town to hear the music, get the tats, buy the funky goodwill clothes. But Portland is broke, except when the Feds drop some coin to extend light rail another half billion dollar mile. We have no rural economy outside of that 30% of the state that might be farmed or ranched, and that has to support the government services for the other 60% of the state that the Feds own and do nothing with. We have this Federal goiter around our neck. This timbered wart all over the state. This unfriendly, inhospitable, verdant or black, and becoming more black or red or white than green, huge off limits chunk of Federal adipose that is needy. If we don’t pay attention, it becomes the all enveloping fire that seems to find its way to private land, and when Federal origin fires burn private land, there is tort limits and no claim against the owning agency for damages. However, if a fire from private land burns on to the Federal estate, the US Attorney is in court suing for damages, right now. And collecting. It is a one way street, this Federal acne, this not always benign tumor called Federal land. They can sue you, stop you, and you cannot do a thing to them. Sort of like the smarty pants kid in grade school with the “you can’t touch me, Pimple Face, or I will tell the teacher you hit me.” You didn’t like that kid, then, and you don’t like the Federal land now.

    As the litigants prevail to run grazers off the land, and this week in Oregon, it was 18 on the John Day River, due to the usual suspects with more money and less sense, who get to sue and sue and sure, and if they win, EAJA pays like a slot machine, and if the ranchers they sue, win, why the EAJA finds a way to preclude them from having their legal fees paid. A one frigging way street. Or, as a retired lawyer told me last week, he was aghast that the law had changed to where the USFS could lock you out of your land. They could deny you access to your land. Even land acquired from a railroad, which was required to sell its checkerboard sections to the public. He was dumbfounded, and the said simply “the USFS wants all the inholdings and will get them.” The King’s land. The Imperial USFS. And they have friends in the NGOs. It is the NGOs who have the lucrative lane to EAJA money, it is they who pick on the grazers watershed by watershed, cut them from the herd, and nut them with a sort of sharp pocket knife. This week it was because cows damage stream banks. Like elk don’t. And that damage hurts the effort to restore salmon runs. Not that there will not be a fishing season for them, all year long. There will be. But not in the ocean. Nope. Dept of Commerce runs the ocean, and they won’t let anyone fish for salmon in the ocean because the Sacramento/San Joaquin Rivers have ESA listed salmon runs that are now low due to water for irrigation not leaving any for salmon in the Central Valley of California. Different deal, that. There irrigation water with baby salmon runs out in rills to irrigate federally subsidized crops with federall subsidized salmon smolts as fertilizer. All coming from Federally subsidized canals, pumps, dams, reservoirs, all so the vegetarians have organic fare on the table. Organic can include dead wild salmon, because dead fish are natural. But you buy “wild” salmon at the fish market because “wild” “free ranging” salmon can’t get an organic label, but farmed salmon can. Go figure.

    I don’t like my country for what it has become. I voted to change it. Evidently, there was a majority who feel like I do. I hope in 2012, the Senate changes majority. We need some prior legislation dropped from the books, from a Congress and President who will do just that. Bad law has run its course, and the people are fed up. I can hear the coyotes howling now.

  28. Dewey Coyote,
    I am fully aware that the Internet never forgets. I am also fully aware that anonymous anklebiter speech has degraded debate, and you are a contributor to that degradation. At least Sam Western has put his name to his hooey.
    And Ralph Maughan puts his, to his. By the same token, however, Ralph controls the discussion in a completely biased fashion. It’s not a debate as much as it is a Stuart-Smalley-style circle of affirmation.
    I think I tried three or four times to make civil points — again, on my name so I could be put in context — and Ralph never posted a single one.
    Right, fought the New World mine, even if the odds were it would have been a showcase project, pretty much not visible to the public unless interested or acrophiliic.
    After having suffered through the New World/Crown Butte EIS way back when, I am confident the mine would have come off as planned and it would have been a new world for reality based discussions about mining and managing impacts — which in turn was like a real motivator for the illusionist Greens.
    I mean, the sky was gonna fall….can you imagine the damage to environmentalist creds with busloads of Yellowstone tourists getting the full monty dose of reality, and with the kiddies saying, “Daddy, I wanna drive a Cat and be a miner!” all the way home to Podunk?
    I’m sure the mining people knew they had to get it right or kill the industry politically….too bad they caved. And only now does it look like Montana will mine the coal it got in justified compensation for the economic losses posed by the New World fiasco.

  29. Logger, Who told you NewWest speaks for only 10% of westerners? Oh yeah, that’s right — you mentioned Fox. Meaning that facts mean nothing to you, and you’re a firm believer in making up whatever you want to suit your needs.

  30. Mike Dubrasich has his Western Institute for the Study of the Environment site. He is not a slave to lefty journalism schools. You will find some conservative conservation opinions there. He is a Cal Berkley grad. If you want to get into a scholarly dust up, I am sure Mike will roll in the dirt with you. And his site will connect you with others of the same bent.