©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
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
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