Long Awaited Federal Grazing Buy Out Legislation Is Introduced in Washington, D.C.

Online Messenger #68

As a founding member of the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign and a member of its steering board, Western Watersheds Project welcomes this positive news from Washington. Our thanks go to Representative Shays and Grijalva and to Andy Kerr, the executive director of the NPLGC.

National Public Lands Grazing Campaign
Oct. 20, 2003
Contact: Andy Kerr, NPLGC director (503-701-6298 or andykerr@andykerr.net)
Rep. Christopher Shays (202-225-5541)
Rep. Raul Grijalva (202-225-2435 or 520-622-6788)
Keith Raether, NPLGC Public Information Coordinator (406-239-2287)

Shays, Grijalva Introduce Voluntary Grazing Buyout Bills in Congress

Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) have introduced legislation to enact a voluntary federal grazing permit buyout program that would compensate public lands ranchers and could eventually protect 257 million acres of federal public lands in the United States.

The Voluntary Grazing Permit Buyout Act (H.R. 3324, "Shays-Grijalva") would allow federal public lands ranchers to waive their interest in grazing permits in exchange for compensation in the amount of $175/animal unit month (or AUM, the amount of forage to sustain one cow and calf for one month). The bill authorizes $100 million for the program, enough money to retire an estimated 7.8 million acres of federal lands grazed by domestic livestock.

The Arizona Voluntary Grazing Permit Buyout Act is a similar bill that applies specifically to Arizona.

"Buying out federal grazing permits is good for western states and the entire nation," said Shays. "It benefits our nation's environment and budget, while providing a lucrative offer to ranchers who want to sell their permits."

"This legislation will go a long way toward resolving the ongoing and contentious debate on public lands grazing in the West," said Grijalva. "Congressman Shays and I have introduced a bill that will give much needed relief to ranching families suffering the results of drought and other economic factors. "At the same time, the bill will allow for the restoration of public lands that are no longer suitable for grazing. It is a win-win solution to what for many years was viewed as unsolvable."

Under both bills, the public lands allotment associated with a grazing permit would be permanently retired from commercial livestock grazing and the forage re-allocated to wildlife and watersheds. The bills are designed as pilot programs to determine the effectiveness and efficiency of the approach.

"It's a relief that Congress is finally seeing past all the theories and paying attention to the reality on the ground," said John Whitney III, a fourth-generation rancher who holds the largest U.S. Forest Service grazing permit in Arizona. Whitney's 158,000-acre Sunflower allotment in Tonto National Forest northeast of Phoenix has been closed for three years because of drought.

The buyout program was conceived by the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, which seeks to end abusive livestock grazing on America's public lands. The goal of the NPLGC is to provide a solution to the largest conservation issue in the West - livestock grazing - and a financial alternative for cash strapped public lands ranchers with investments stranded in grazing permits.

The buyout proposal was introduced to nearly 26,000 public lands ranchers in April 2002. It is endorsed by nearly 200 conservation groups, including the Sierra Club.

In a recent poll conducted by the Arizona Grazing Permit Buyout Campaign, 154 permittees (68 percent of all respondents) of the state's 870 federal public lands ranchers supported the bill. Eleven others have since added their support.

"We know this is just the tip of the iceberg," said John Whitney IV, steering committee chairman of the Arizona buyout campaign. "A lot of permittees have told us they support a buyout, but they just couldn't believe it would ever happen. Well, now it is happening."

If all federal grazing permittees availed themselves of the buyout offer, the plan would effectively retire a federal welfare program that costs American taxpayers more than $500 million annually in subsidies for public lands ranching operations. A complete buyout of all federal public lands grazed by livestock would cost taxpayers $3.1 billion but provide a net savings of $12.6 billion.

Federal public lands produce only 2 percent of the nation's total livestock feed and beef. Contributions from public lands grazing to state and local economies are miniscule. As the cost of ranching continues to increase, the capital value of federal grazing permits continues to decline.

The Shays-Grijalva bills would pay federal permittees well above market value to relinquish their grazing permits. Under the plan, a permittee with 300 cow/calf pairs that graze public lands for five months of the year would receive $262,000.

The buyout program would also diminish decades of environmental destruction caused by livestock grazing. In its Global 2000 report, the Council on Environmental Quality noted that "improvident grazing...has been the most potent desertification force, in terms of total acreage, within the United States."

"To protect endangered species and ensure water quality on public lands, the federal government encourages citizens to sue violators, even the government itself," said Andy Kerr, director of the NPLGC. "The 'stick' approach is important, but environmentalists also want the government to implement the 'carrot' approach."

Time magazine estimates that 328,000 ranchers and farmers will lose their jobs in this decade alone. "A federal grazing permit buyout is ecologically imperative, economically rational, fiscally prudent, socially just and politically pragmatic," said Kerr. "It's a win-win-win for permittees, taxpayers and the environment."