by Jon Marvel
Western Watersheds Project has joined with five other regional conservation groups and the American Lands Alliance in Washington, D.C., to form the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign (NPLGC).
The other groups in our coalition are Forest Guardians of Santa Fe, New Mexico; the Center for Biological Diversity of Tucson, Arizona; the Oregon Natural Desert Association of Bend, Oregon; and the Committee for Idaho’s High Desert in Boise, Idaho.
The NPLGC seeks to prompt legislation in Congress to authorize the voluntary buy-out and permanent retirement of federal grazing permits with federal funds. WWP and our partners believe that this proposal, which includes a recommended payment amount of $175 per animal unit month (AUM), will provide an opportunity to reduce the contentious and often adversarial conflicts surrounding the use of public lands for domestic livestock in the American West.
Because the legislative proposal for grazing permit buy-outs calls for voluntary retirement, ranchers would not be obligated to participate. By the same token, the buy-out amount is almost triple the average value per AUM of federal grazing permits in today’s market – a powerful financial incentive for ranchers to participate.
The buy-out will be especially valuable for ranchers who are nearing retirement and wish to keep their private land while receiving a one-time payment. For a rancher with 300 cows that graze on public lands for five months of the year, the value of the buy-out would be $262,500, a sum to be used any way the rancher wishes.
WWP and our partners in the NPLGC believe the proposed legislation is entirely feasible because the annual net raid of $500 million on the federal budget to administer public lands ranching will have a payback period of about six years after the retirement of all public-lands grazing permits.
The land area involved is about 270 million acres in 11 western states. The permanent elimination of federal administrative costs of public-lands ranching will produce a cumulative and ongoing savings after the initial six-year payback.
While the financial benefits of such a program are easily calculated, the environmental and conservation value of the plan is greater still. 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.
More than 80 percent of wildlife species in the West are dependent on riparian areas, which constitute only 1.5 percent of public lands.
Declining species such as sage grouse, antelope, native fishes, neo-tropic birds, prairie dogs and native predators will no longer be threatened. Instead, they will recover to far healthier populations.
Of course, public lands will still need to be managed to protect public resources from ongoing problems like weed invasions, incompatible recreational activities and historic land uses such as mining and oil and gas leasing.
But because livestock grazing is the single largest use of public lands and its impacts are far more pervasive and negative than any other use, the benefits of the NPLGC proposal will be far-reaching and substantial.
WWP welcomes the opportunity to join in the NPLGC effort, which will literally change the face of public lands in the West. It is an historic idea that will make possible the restoration and recovery of public-lands watersheds everywhere.
Jon Marvel is Executive Director of WWP.