Livestock Grazing at Taxpayers' Expense?

We've looked at some of the problems with U.S. agricultural subsidies before—the environmental consequences, damage to developing nations' economies, harm to small farmers in the U.S., and the lack of funds for more environmentally-beneficial programs that results from dedicating millions to unfair subsidies, some decades old and some decided just a few years ago.

Here's one more: ranchers get quite the bargain to graze their livestock on public land. On 258 million acres of public land, to be more specific, at a cost of $1.43 per "animal unit month" (how much a cow and her calf can eat in one month). That fee barely covers 15 percent of the administrative and management costs affiliated with the land, meaning farms are essentially grazing cattle at public expense, without having to worry about or make up for the environmental damage done to the land because of the grazing.

Check this out, directly from a 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office:

federal agencies' grazing fees generated about $21 million in fiscal year 2004--less than one-sixth of the expenditures to manage grazing...

BLM's and the Forest Service's grazing receipts fell short of their expenditures on grazing in fiscal year 2004 by almost $115 million. The BLM and Forest Service fee also decreased by 40 percent from 1980 to 2004, while grazing fees charged by private ranchers increased by 78 percent for the same period.

A coalition of environmental groups submitted a petition [PDF] that year to increase the grazing fee, but—despite the legal mandate to do so—the Departments of Interior and Agriculture never responded. So last week, that same coalition, which includes the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians, sued the departments to get the response it deserves.

From the WildEarth Guardians press release about the lawsuit [PDF]:

The current grazing fee does not recover even the administrative costs of operating the program, leaving U.S. taxpayers to pay the difference. The fee also falls short of paying for the environmental problems this land use causes, and instead enables high levels of livestock grazing that harm ecosystems, degrade watersheds, and cause species decline. In 2010, the government charges just $1.35 per month to graze one cow and calf on public lands administered by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management... To recover expenditures, the Bureau and Forest Service would have had to charge $7.64 and $12.26 per animal unit month, respectively.

The coalition also points out that since the funds collected are also "required to be used on range mitigation and restoration, the low fee equates to less funds for environmental mitigation and restoration of the impacted lands."

To learn more, read the Full Cost of the Federal Grazing Program [PDF] report or visit the Sagebrush Sea campaign and read its report on the fiscal costs [PDF] of the grazing program.


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