From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 5, Number 34 - November 17, 2005
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

GAO report spawns grazing petition

by Cat Urbigkit

The Government Accountability Office recently released a report on livestock grazing on public lands. The report found that 10 federal agencies managed more than 22.6-million animal unit months on 235 million acres of lands for grazing in 2004. The agencies spent $144 million, and generated about $21 million, less than one-sixth of the expenditures to manage grazing.

The federal fee for grazing fluctuates from year to year and is based on a formula. The fee was $2.36 per AUM in 1980 for Bureau of Land Management and $2.41 per AUM for the Forest Service. It was $1.43 per AUM for both agencies in 2004. The fee is adjusted to reflect the forage value indexand net cost, including the beef cattle price and producer prices index, which is a measure of the change in income and production expenses.

Private lands, which are leased at market prices, are not comparable to public lands because private lands have better forage and sources of water. In addition, private landowners often provide services that are not provided by agencies administering federal lands, including daily livestock care. Public access is greatly restricted on private land, while there are few access restrictions on federal land.

The GAO noted that the grazing fee report was simply a budgetary analysis and did not consider economic, environmental or societal costs and benefits.

Citing the GAO report, last week environmentalists and well-known anti-grazing groups submitted a petition last week to the secretaries of the Departments of Agriculture and Interior, requesting an increase to the grazing fee charged to livestock operators on BLM and Forest Service lands.

The groups advocated increasing the fee to move the federal grazing program closer to cost recovery and claimed that such a move would limit ecological damage from grazing. The rule-making petition was submitted by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sagebrush Sea Campaign, Forest Guardians, the Oregon Natural Desert Association and Western Watersheds Project. The petition claimed massive ecological damage is incurred due to livestock in the arid West and recommended a revised formula for calculating what ranchers owe for grazing privileges.

"Cost recovery should be one objective of this federal program, especially in this time of budgetary crisis. The ongoing deficit is essentially a subsidy, and the question is, what are taxpayer's getting in return? Impaired watersheds, accelerated erosion, invasive weeds and degraded habitat for wildlife," said Greta Anderson, botanist and range restoration coordinator for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.

The environmental groups filing the petition claim that to cover costs in 2004, the BLM would have to charge $7.64 per animal unit month and the Forest Service would have to charge $12.26 per AUM.

"The federal grazing program is a lousy deal for taxpayers, as well as for the nation's sage grouse, bighorn sheep, desert tortoise and Pacific salmon that depend on the same public lands that we are paying ranchers to degrade," said Mark Salvo, director of the Sagebrush Sea Campaign. "As long as grazing is permitted on public lands, it's only fair that public lands ranchers pay for the cost of the activity."

The petitioners' cover letter stated, "An increase in the federal grazing fee in the West would not significantly disrupt or cause harm to the livestock industry, but would help to stabilize it by creating a consistent market price for western forage resources, while generating more revenueto DOI and USDA to help offset the significant annual deficit in federal spending from operating the federal grazing program."

The petitions request that the grazing fee be increased to reflect the fair market value of federal forage.

The petitioners used the opportunity to slam livestock grazing and claim massive impacts. The petition noted: "The short- and long-term ecological impacts of livestock grazing on public lands are many and well understood. Although Congress has determined livestock production to be one of the acceptable multiple uses of federal public lands, it is important to note that the consequences of grazing are not just the fiscal debits considered above. ... Wildlife and wildlife habitat, riparian corridors, migratory bird flyways, grasslands, deserts, forests, native fish, soils, air and scenic values are all adversely impacted by livestock grazing, and the costs to these fragile environmental resources from grazing are immense."

The petition noted, "An unfair comparative advantage in livestock production is afforded to federal grazing permittees and lessees solely due to their good fortune of holding qualifying base property adjacentto federal public lands, allowing them to benefit from these artificially low fees."

Industry responds

There are several issues that anti-grazing advocates fail to acknowledge, as pointed out by livestock industry representatives in the following list.

- Many western ranchers do not own or have access to enough private property to maintain a cattle ranch because there is so much land controlled by the federal government. Without the ability to use their own landand federal lands in combination, their operations are not economically viable.

- Not allowing federal land grazing would reduce ranch population and destroy rural communities there to support the ranchers. No ranchers means no business community.

- Cattle, when allowed to roam on federal land, do not destroy all vegetation. Their grazing actually helps regenerate grass growthand the spread of grass seeds. Without grazing, many areas can be over grown by weedy species not suitable for wildlife or livestock grazing.

- Keeping over grown weedy vegetation down reduces fire risk, helps keep invasive weed species at bay and improves habitat for some species of wildlife.

- Federal grazing programs were never intended to be a money-maker for the government. Just like most other government oversight programs, this program has to be budgeted as an expense rather than an income generator. Even without cattle on the land, there would be many management costs as well as work to assure land is being managed in compliance with federal legislation including the National Environmental Policy Act.

- Ranchers receive bare-bone services from the federal government compared to the services that they receive when signing higher-cost private-land grazing leases. Previous studies have shown that once the cost of "extras" received on private land are removed, then the basic grazing costs are about equal to the federal grazing leases. Such extras include access to water, predator control, easy road/transportation access and denser grass/edible vegetation for higher carrying capacity of more cattle per acre.

- Many ranchers cost-share land improvements with the federal government for such things as water access and fencing. Most improvements are resource improvements that help wildlife in many cases - water access for wildlife being the best example.

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