The Global Citizen: Our Underpriced, Overgrazed Range

We the American people are the most generous landowners in the world. We sell gold mines for $5 per acre. We pay people to take from our national forests 800-year-old trees worth $5000 each. And we subsidize ranchers to overgraze our rangelands. About 240 million acres of federal land are leased to private ranchers. The charge is $1.61 per cow per month. It costs more than that to feed a cat, Johanna Wald of the Natural Resources Defense Fund points out. Comparable private lands bring in an average grazing fee of $10 per cow per month. Some permit holders pay us chumps the $1.61 and then turn around and sublease their allotments at market rates. For tens of thousands of cows over hundreds of thousands of acres, that earns them a nice piece of change. Low grazing fees are costing us over $50 million a year. The whole federal grazing program, including taxpayer-funded predator control, emergency feed and cheap water costs us ten times that much. That doesn't count the cost of degraded grasses, eroded soil, muddied streams, trampled streamside vegetation, and water running faster off the land in places where water is the most precious resource. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 85 percent of our public rangeland has lost productivity because of overgrazing. The trouble with public handouts, conservative politicians constantly tell us, is that they create dependency. People who are used to the dole resist self-reliance. Recipients of ranching welfare tend to talk loud, carry guns, and write checks to political campaigns. So "overgrazing" and "socialized ranching" are fightin' words in the fierce, independent West, and even more so in Washington, where Western Senators permit no wild talk about exposing subsidized cowboys to the rigors of the competitive market. They tell pitiful stories of proud ranching families and a way of life being threatened. Some of those stories are even true. About half the grazing lands are used by small or medium-sized ranchers, families, hardscrabble folks, some of whom actually treat the land with respect. The other half of our rangelands are used by just two percent of all permit holders, big operators who are making a fortune from us. They include four billionaires, several oil companies, an insurance company, a California utility, and a major brewery. If we charged honest rates and withdrew permits from land abusers, the economy of the West would not crumble. Grazing on federal lands provides just 0.06 percent of all jobs and 0.04 percent of all income in the Western states (and 3 percent of the nation's beef). Those numbers might actually go up if grazing privileges were limited to small holders who were present on the land and held to sensible stocking rates. That is not what our leaders are proposing, of course. Rep. Jim Hansen (R-Utah) wants to give most of the grazing lands away to the states, so the guns could be waved and the campaign contributions offered to politicians closer to home. Bruce Babbitt, our Secretary of the Interior, has come up with a plan called Rangeland Reform '94. Like most Clinton administration inventions, it is so wishy-washy it offends everyone. It puts considerable power over grazing rules in the hands of local advisory councils, which ranchers would love if those councils included only ranchers. Babbitt thinks they should also include environmentalists, hikers, hunters, and other folk who see uses for public land beyond feeding cows. Rangeland Reform '94 does not dare to suggest minimum standard grazing practices. It originally proposed raising the grazing fee to $3.96, but that enraged ranchers so much that we don't hear about it any more. Senator Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico) wrote a bill making grazing the dominant use of public rangelands. It would exempt grazing from environmental review, thereby cutting out the opportunity for us citizens to comment on practices on our own land. It raises the grazing fee all the way up to $2.10 and transfers management to local associations, putting the chickens firmly into the hands of the foxes. As originally drafted, the bill allowed ranchers to restrict public access to their allotments, set fires, cut wood, and treat the land as their own in every way except paying for it. The only animals of concern in Domenici's bill are cows and sheep -- not fish or elk or eagles. Says a proponent, Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), "This is a grazing bill, not an ecosystem bill." Maybe you'd like to see our beautiful, vast rangelands regulated so they stay productive for grazing and also for wild creatures. Maybe you'd like to walk or fish there. Or get a decent return from those resources, instead of a constant drain on our taxes. If that's what you'd like -- fair, rational, sustainable, and economic land management -- you and I have the immediate job of stopping the works of people like Hansen and Domenici and stiffening the rubbery backbones of Babbitt and Clinton. Then we have the long-term job of electing managers who aren't so eager to give our resources away to whoever waves the biggest gun or biggest check.

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