December 2003

Buyout proposal intensifies grazing debate

By Gail Binkly

Hooved locusts, author Edward Abbey called them, and many environmentalists agree.

Cattle on public lands, they say, are voracious pests that denude landscapes, destroy riparian areas, and crowd out wildlife.

Those arguments are nothing new. The debate about public-lands grazing has raged for decades (remember the slogan “Cattle-free in ’93”?).

But it was turned up a notch this fall when two U.S. congressmen, Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., and Christopher Shays, R-Conn., introduced legislation that would provide for a voluntary buyout of grazing permits.

HR 3324 would offer a one-time payment of $175 per animal unit month (the average amount of forage consumed by a cow and calf for one month) if a rancher agrees to permanently retire a grazing allotment. Currently, the average market value of an AUM in the West is $35 to $75.

The bill requests $100 million in initial funding for the buyout. A companion bill would start a pilot buyout program in Arizona.

There are some 22,000 to 25,000 grazing permits in the country, according to Veronica Egan, executive director of Great Old Broads for Wilderness, a Durango-based nonprofit. Buying them all out would require about $3 billion.

“This is a start,” she said. “This generous offer would probably help many ranchers get out of debt. It’s a way out with dignity.”

But many local citizens disagree vociferously. They say agriculture, both farming and ranching, brings benefits to the area that will be lost if grazing permits are permanently retired on a broad scale.

‘A graceful way out’

“If permits go down, in most situations the core deeded land will go up for sale for subdivision,” said Chris Majors, a Montezuma County rancher and accountant who owns about 600 head of cattle, half of which graze on public lands part of the year. “In this area, most ranchers are very reliant (on grazing allotments). If you stop the grazing leases most of the ranchers here would not be in ranching any more.”

U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, a Republican who represents Southwest Colorado, is likewise opposed to the bill. In a Sept. 25 “Dear Colleague” letter to other legislators, he wrote:

“While I do not doubt that my Colleagues introducing this measure have forthright goals, you should be aware of the goals of some of the groups pushing these ‘voluntary’ retirements. . . . (T)he National Public Lands Grazing Campaign (NPLGC) overall goal is to eliminate all cattle grazing on public lands.”

That’s no secret, say those supporting the legislation. They argue that cattle-grazing, particularly in the arid West, is an environmentally foolish practice that must be heavily subsidized by taxpayers in order for ranchers to stay in business.

“The whole idea is to get cows off the (public) land,” said Egan. “That’s the point. Obviously a lot of people aren’t going to like that, but the land doesn’t belong to them only.”

Rose Chilcoat, program director for GOB, emphasized that the buyout is voluntary. “If the land is healthy enough to sustain grazing and be productive for a rancher, then that rancher will not likely want to be part of the buyout,” she said.

“If you have a mid-elevation permit on the San Juan National Forest and it grows grass and you have a viable operation, you’re not going to jump on this bandwagon. But if you have a BLM allotment and your operation is a failure, this is a graceful way for the rancher to cash out.”

But McInnis disagrees. In his letter, he wrote, “these groups backing the legislation also have vigorous and well-funded legal teams that bankrupt ranchers while delaying and obstructing extensions of their grazing permits. So, if a rancher doesn't accept a ‘voluntary’ buyout, they may become the unfortunate victim of lawsuits. . .”

Mistakes of the past

Foes of public-lands grazing say cattle and, to a lesser extent sheep, are associated with a litany of environmental woes. Cattle hang out near streambeds, trampling the banks and causing erosion, environmentalists say. They destroy native grasses and cottonwood seedlings. And, of course, there are the ubiquitous cowpies.

Clearly, cattle change landscapes. When settlers first arrived in the Mancos Valley in the 1870s, according to historical records, they found grasses growing as high as their stirrups. Thirty years later, after great cattle herds had feasted unchecked, the tall nutritious grasses such as bluestem were gone and sagebrush was proliferating.

Majors admitted mistakes were made long ago. “There were abuses out of sheer ignorance, a lot of them, in the ’20s and ’30s. People came into this country, saw how it was and didn’t have any reason to think it would be any different. They didn’t have the science we have now.”

Such land degradation would not be allowed today, he said. “It would be counterproductive to abuse your range. If I go out and ruin my range I’m not hurting anybody but myself. My goal is to grow as many pounds of beef as I can over my lifetime and that’s not going to happen if I abuse the range.”

Mark Tucker, rangeland-management program leader for the San Juan Public Lands Center, agreed that there were problems in the past, but said public-lands officials are now sensitive to any land degradation.

“Mistakes made a long time ago are still with us today,” such as cheatgrass having been allowed to spread, he said. However, at this point it would be difficult to restore rangeland to a “pristine natural community” even by ending grazing, he said.

Tucker said, while lower-elevation ranges locally are probably in poor to fair condition because of the drought, in the pine zone, conditions are better.

“I wouldn’t say we have excellent range conditions public-lands-wide,” Tucker said, “but we do have lands that are in real good shape.

“With some of these ranchers’ cooperation we’ve been able to withstand the drought pretty well because of rotation, regular deferment, and so on.”

But environmentalists argue that problems still are widespread, particularly where rangeland is not naturally lush to begin with, such as in the Four Corners. The grasses that grow here did not evolve under intensive-grazing conditions, they say, and cattle aren’t suited to the landscape.

“Domestic cattle grew up in wetlands,” Egan said. “They’ll hang out in the creeks.”

And 80 percent of the wildlife in the desert Southwest depends upon such streams, which constitute a tiny percentage of the total land area, Chilcoat stated.

M.B. McAfee of Yellow Jacket, also a member of GOB, said many people don’t recognize that the land is damaged because cattle-grazing altered it generations ago and no one remembers the way it was before. “BLM will say, ‘Well, the land’s always looked like this.’ People haven’t considered the cumulative impacts of generations of grazing.”

A couple of years ago, McAfee said, she and Chilcoat hiked in Cross Canyon on the Utah border and found the conditions on one permitted area “appalling.” A year later, after cattle had been removed because of the drought, she returned and discovered cottonwood seedlings 18 to 24 inches high and big bunches of Indian rice grass.

“In a lot of areas in the West you see old cottonwoods but no regeneration, because of the continued pressure of cattle-grazing,” said Chilcoat.

A renewable resource

But Majors believes public lands would be worse off if they were retired from grazing. Noxious weeds would grow unchecked, he said, and grass would be thick, increasing fire danger and eventually becoming decadent.

“In my humble opinion, grass is a renewable resource,” he said. “It’s meant to be harvested. If it isn’t, you get stagnant, rootbound grass.”

In addition, ranchers say they make many improvements to the range, some of which help wildlife, such as stock ponds.

But environmentalists maintain public-lands grazing harms the ecosystem more than it helps it. They say cattle, along with cars, are the primary spreaders of noxious weeds, and that cattle increase fire danger by crowding out the grass that carries low-intensity fires. Instead, trees and brush proliferate and fires burn higher and hotter.

And ranchers want predators and pests controlled to make the range safer for livestock, which has meant widespread killing of everything from mountain lions and coyotes to prairie dogs.

In addition, the “broads” maintain that Western cattle-ranching is a dying industry. Just 2 to 3 percent of U.S. beef is produced in 11 Western states, Egan said. “If we hadn’t been subsidizing cattle for the last century, they’d have gone away a long time ago,” she said.

Currently, the federal grazing program costs $132 million each year to administer, according to Congressman Shays’ web site, while revenues from grazing fees bring in only about $6 million.

Statistics seem to indicate that agriculture plays a relatively small role in the local economy. According to data compiled by Operation Healthy Communities, in 2001 agriculture accounted for just 8 percent of the total number of jobs in Montezuma County and 1 percent of the employment income, down from 9 percent and 2 percent in 1999.

In La Plata County, agriculture rose from 3 percent of the total jobs in 1999 to 6 percent in 2001. In Dolores County, where ag is still significant, it rose from 31 percent to 35. However, the numbers aren’t broken down by farming vs. ranching.

Ag jobs are notoriously low-paying; the average wage was $17,545 in Montezuma County in 2001. The vast majority of ranchers have to have other jobs to stay afloat. Even County Commissioner Kelly Wilson remarked at a recent meeting that agriculture is “no longer viable” in Montezuma County.

But other people say that isn’t so, that ranching and farming remain important components of the local economy and lifestyle. More importantly, they say, agriculture keeps the county from being overrun by ranchettes and housing developments.

Subsidizing open space?

Mike Preston, federal-lands coordinator for Montezuma County, said statistics don’t reflect the importance of agriculture to the local community.

“We live in what’s fundamentally an ag landscape,” he said. “It’s one of the major appeals of Montezuma County.” Events such as 4-H shows, the county fair, the Ag Expo, and rodeos draw many outsiders to town and provide the feeling of living in a rural, down-to-earth community.

Agriculture brings new dollars into the area because most ag products, such as beef and alfalfa hay, are exported, Preston said. “Those dollars tend to circulate locally,” he said. “Most of the money is plowed back into the community” through purchases of feed, supplies, and machinery, he said.

Farming and ranching support a host of other enterprises, including trucking, warehousing, veterinary services, bean mills, feed stores and co-ops, equipment dealers, and equipment-repair operations, Preston pointed out.

Chilcoat argued that, while there may be some changes in communities if ranching dies out, they may not be negative. “The feed store may go out of business but you may have six bed-and-breakfasts open,” she said.

But others believe the kind of residential development that will occur if agriculture is phased out — weed-covered ranchettes, tony condos and second homes that stand vacant most of the year — is not something locals want to see.

Preston said, from a county-government standpoint, agricultural development is the most cost-effective. “You avoid a lot of the costs that occur when you get a lot of subdivisions out where you had farms and ranches.” Such costs include more road maintenance because of increased traffic; more demands for sheriff’s and fire services; and a need for more or bigger schools.

In a sense, supporters of public-lands grazing maintain that subsidizing ranchers is also subsidizing the preservation of open space.

But Egan doesn’t buy that argument.

“Ranchers have never prevented condos so far,” she said. Besides, she said, rampant development happens only in “sexy places” such as Durango and Telluride, not locales like Rangely. At any rate, she added, the buyout is only for public land and ranchers are still free to raise cattle on private land.

Majors said he’s concerned, however, that the high price offered for retiring one’s grazing permit will persuade ranchers to sell out to the government rather than allow another rancher to have a chance at the permit. “They’ll put the market higher than the ag producers could pay.”

McInnis echoed that concern in his letter, stating, “The grazing permit is not a property right, and cannot be separately sold. Currently, if a rancher chooses not to seek to renew the permit, that permit is then offered to other interested ranchers for grazing…. Allowing a single rancher who may have suffered an unfortunate string of bad years and drought to dictate the future use of public lands forever is a radical change in our public lands policy.”

Majors said most local ranchers won’t immediately go for the buyout, but the money might be too much to resist if a rancher is thinking about retiring. “If their permit’s up for sale and the government offers $175 (per AUM), you’re going to see a mass exodus of ranchers. Then the private ground that’s part of that ranch will be subdivided,” he said.

“Farming and ranching is the only thing keeping the whole county from being a giant three-acre subdivision.”

The San Juan National Forest’s Tucker said changing cultural conditions and increased recreational pressure are probably going to intensify the debate over livestock on public lands.

“Grazing is much more visible than it was 20 years ago,” he said. “The public and other entities are a lot more interested in what goes on out there.

“The idea of a buyout is probably not going to go away.”