From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 5, Number 23 - September 1, 2005
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Buy-out termed 'multiple use conflict resolution'

by Cat Urbigkit

There is a continued movement within environmental groups to end public lands livestock grazing. This goal has taken various forms over the years, but the current effort would have Congress pay for a program to buy out federal grazing permits. The idea has gained endorsement from a variety of local, state and national organizations, including some operating in this region, such as the Wyoming Outdoor Council, Western Watersheds Project, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance and Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

Legislation has been introduced in the U.S. Congress to authorize a voluntary grazing permit buyout program on a national scale. The bill has been named the "Multiple-Use Conflict Resolution Act."

The bill proposes to provide compensation to ranchers who voluntarily relinquish a federal grazing permit or lease on public lands "where conflicts with other multiple uses render livestock grazing impractical." The bill would pay federal grazing permittees/lessees $175 per animal unit month to permanently retire their permit or lease. The legislation proposes a $100 million fund be established to undertake the program to close federal grazing allotments.

The bill asks Congress to declare:

(1) The use of federal lands by grazing permittees and lessees for commercial livestock grazing is increasingly difficult due to growing conflicts with other legitimate multiple uses of the lands, such as environmental protection and burgeoning recreational use, and with congressionally mandated goals of wildlife and habitat protection and improved water quality and quantity.

(2) The recreational use of federal lands often leads to conflicts with commercial livestock grazing on the same lands because some recreational users of the lands cause damage to range developments or disturb livestock, which renders many grazing operations on federal lands uneconomical.

(3) A combination of sustained drought, foreign competition, changing domestic markets, industry restructuring, and individual ranch situations has resulted in federal grazing permits and leases becoming stranded investments for many permittees and lessees.

(4) Attempts to resolve grazing conflicts with other multiple uses often require extensive range developments, intensive herd management, and continuous monitoring that greatly increases costs to both permittees and lessees and taxpayers, far out of proportion to the benefit received.

(5) Certain grazing allotments on federal lands have, or are likely to become, unsuitable for commercial livestock production as a result of the combined effect of the factors referred to in paragraphs (1) through (4) and other factors.

(6) The cost of the federal grazing program greatly exceeds revenues to the federal treasury from grazing receipts.

(7) Many permittees and lessees have indicated their willingness to end their commercial livestock grazing on federal lands in exchange for a one-time payment to reasonably compensate them for the effort and investment that they have made in a grazing allotment.

(8) Compensating permittees and lessees who relinquish their grazing permit or lease and end commercial livestock grazing on federal lands would help recapitalize an ailing sector of rural America, by providing economic options to permittees and lessees that do not presently exist and allowing them to restructure their ranch operations, start new businesses, or retire with security.

(9) Reasonable compensation for the relinquishment of a grazing permit or lease will help alleviate the need for permittees and lessees to sell or subdivide their private lands. (10) The cost of compensating permittees and lessees for voluntarily waiving permits and leases is significantly less than the cost to the taxpayers of continuing to administer, monitor, assess, and mitigate for the environmental and other impacts of commercial livestock grazing on federal lands.

Although the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, which provides the organizational framework behind the buy-out scheme, has claimed that ranchers endorse this proposal, its website includes only seven ranches in the entire West that have endorsed the proposal.

Ag responds

A variety of agricultural organizations, including the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Public Lands Council, American Sheep Industry and Association of National Grasslands, have been vocal in opposition to any national proposal to buy out federal grazing permits or systematically reduce animal-unit-months on federally managed lands.

Earlier this summer, these national ag groups sent letters to all 22,275 public lands grazing permittees throughout the West telling them about ongoing efforts to strengthen public land ranching.

The Public Lands Council noted that livestock grazing on public lands:

Increases the diversity and productivity of rangelands and wildlife populations,

Preserves open spaces and cultural traditions throughout the West, and

Sustains the economies of rural communities.

The benefits of grazing are supported by law, the groups noted. The Multiply-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960 was enacted to authorize that federal lands "be managed under principles of multiple use and to produce a sustained yield of products and services, and for other purposes." This law recognizes grazing as one of six uses for which federal lands are to be managed.

Federal lands account for around one third of the total livestock grazing acreage in the U.S., according to the Public Lands Council.

Sierra Club grazing policy

The Sierra Club has endorsed the buy-out proposal as a part of its overall grazing policy for public lands, which is based on the following five points:

Commercial grazing is not appropriate on federal public lands except where it is shown by science that some grazing is needed to achieve ecological objectives.

On federal public lands that were once grazed by large native herbivores the Sierra Club will seek, whenever feasible, the replacement of non-native grazing species (cattle, sheep, goats, etc.) with native grazers (within their historic range).

Where settlement or ownership patterns obstruct the reintroduction of native grazers on public lands, grazing operators should manage livestock towards the goal of maximum restoration of native plant and animal communities, water quality and other environmental goals. Meat or fiber production should not be a primary goal of such grazing and operators should be required to demonstrate a steadily improving range trend toward excellent ecological condition.

The Sierra Club recognizes that restrictions on grazing may have negative impacts on the cultural and economic stability of some communities. These impacts are apt to be most severe in Native American, minority and low-income communities. We are committed to developing partnerships with community members to identify and implement strategies to protect both traditional communities and the ecological integrity of public lands, without sacrificing either.

The Sierra Club is committed to helping ease the economic burden on small family ranch operations with federal public lands allotments that would be affected by termination or reduction of their grazing leases.

The Sierra Club noted that it believes that interim actions can benefit rangelands, suggesting that if allotments become open for reallocation, they should be awarded by a competitive bidding system whereby a bidder who meets minimum bid requirements and proposes the grazing strategy that will maximize biological preservation and recovery shall be awarded the grazing contract, even if that bidder proposes to retire the allotment and manage it for other values, such as water quality.

This national environmental organization noted that changes in grazing policy may take years to accomplish, so as its first priority, the Sierra Club "will work toward ending commercial grazing on federal public lands" in areas with various characteristics.

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