Summer 2002

The Big Dry

Cows plus drought equals misery for rivers in the West

Top 10 western rivers trampled by the livestock industry

1. Bear River -- Utah, Wyoming, Idaho

2. Salmon River -- Idaho

3. Gila River -- New Mexico, Arizona

4. John Day River -- Oregon

5. Owyhee River -- Oregon, Nevada, Idaho

6. Sweetwater River -- Wyoming

7. Big Hole River -- Montana

8. Little Humboldt River -- Nevada

9. Yampa River -- Colorado

10. Kern River -- California

Buyout or Bailout?

A Killing in the Klamath

2002 Cascadia Times


Buyout or Bailout

Greens say it's time to end public land ranching in the West. But how?


The livestock industry in the West is in serious trouble, as newspapers from Arizona to Montana have made abundantly clear all summer long.

The Denver Post carried the touching story of how drought has pushed a 170-year-old family-owned ranch in southern Colorado to the edge of extinction. "Scores began selling their herds at livestock auctions as early as May because they could not feed them," the Post reported. "In southern Utah, cattle are dying and ranchers are going broke," the St. George, Utah, Spectrum said. "Shifting policies, dismal profits threaten small ranches' survival," blared the Arizona Republic.

Ranching's economic downturn is not merely a matter of summerlong drought. The EPA predicts climate change will likely mean drier conditions and warmer temperatures in the arid West.

Yet ranchers are holding on as best they can, with much help from Uncle Sam. To keep western ranchers from going under this winter, the Bush administration has announced plans to pay out $752 million in drought aid. This represents losses of $103 million in 2001 and $583 million in 2002. Each rancher would be eligible for to $40,000. These payments are in addition to the estimated $500 million annual subsidies the federal government already provides western ranches.

But a number of environmental and taxpayer groups say that these subsidies enable ranchers to continue damaging watersheds and destroying species, and should end. Since 1998, Andy Kerr and others have argued for a Congressional buyout of all permits to graze livestock on public lands. New legislation would require the managing agencies to permanently retire the permits, reallocate forage to wildlife, and allow the land to recover. The plan would clear cows out of wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, national monuments, national forests, national recreation areas, national parks and BLM lands. Livestock are at least partly responsible for 22 percent of the species listed under the Endangered Species Act. Logging and mining together are responsible for only 21 percent.

Compensation paid to operators would be based on the fair market value of each permit. For example, the owner of a permit to graze 300 cow and calf pairs on public lands for five months of the year would receive $262,000 or more. In all the plan would cost the taxpayer some $5 billion, in exchange for an end to billions in subsidies. Permittees could do whatever they want with the money, including pay off the bank, downsize their grazing operation, buy more land or leave a financial legacy for their loved ones. In exchange, the public land would be closed to grazing forever.

"While the financial benefits of such a program are easily calculated, the environmental and conservation value of the plan is greater still," says Jon Marvel, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project in Hailey, Idaho. "Putting an immediate end to the negative impacts of livestock grazing on every watershed on public lands in the West will result in a rapid recovery of degraded riparian areas and all wildlife species dependent on them. "

Western Watersheds is among more than 100 groups that support the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, an organization specifically created to push the buyout proposal in Congress. Kerr, its executive director, was once a leading player in the political campaign to save Northwest forests. "Federal grazing permit buyouts are ecologically imperative, economically rational, fiscally prudent, socially compassionate and politically pragmatic," Kerr says. "It's a win-win-win for permittees, taxpayers and the environment."

But Denise Boggs, executive director of the Utah Environmental Council, believes strongly that the buyout will not force federal land management agencies to stop habitat destruction, and won't reduce the number of cattle on public lands as dramatically as proponents suggest. "I find it detestable to reward someone's bad behavior, to actually pay them to not destroy our public lands," Boggs says.

She contends there are other ways to remove the cattle more quickly. "The agencies have plenty of ammunition to entirely eliminate livestock use in areas where they can demonstrate it is causing damage," she says. "They simply won't do it. They have the tools to put an end to this."

But the biggest concern to Boggs is the precedent this proposal sets. "Are we going to start paying loggers not to log the forests, are we going to pay the energy companies not to drill for oil? Are we going to pay motorized recreationists not to drive their ATVs? I think this establishes a horrible precedent that is going to come back to haunt us for a very long time."

Other approaches have been tried, with limited success, Kerr says. Groups have failed to persuade Congress to cut federal grazing subsidies or to raise federal grazing fees. And while litigation has been increasingly effective to protect public lands, the scope of the litigation has protected few areas, and often fails to address abuses on private lands.

Yet Kerr says he agrees with much of what Boggs says. "What we have is conflicting principles. I absolutely agree with her. And I also know that species are going extinct and watersheds are being decimated."