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 Published in Volume XIV, Number 1, Spring 2006 Range Magazine, pp 24-26.  ( Not available at http://www.rangemagazine.com/ )


Hikers, Loggers & Grazing Prices


When the Washington Post interpreted a Government Accounting Office (GAO) report, they wrote: “the program that charges ranchers a fee to graze their cattle on public land . . . loses [the government] $123 million a year.”  The article then quoted a variety of antigrazing advocates.

          What the GAO report actually does say is that ranchers do not have ‘exclusive access to the federal lands, which are managed for multiple purposes or uses.”  IT also outlines the formula used to set grazing fees, which includes allowance for the work the rancher does to maintain the area.

By Ric Frost

“Overgrazing can damage public land,” former Interior secretary – turned private real estate broker- Bruce Babbitt told the Washington Post.  Rep Raul M. Grijalva (D-AZ), one of the lawmakers who commissioned the GAO report, said: “It has not helped them turn a profit.  That’s not a responsible use of that land.”

          These are the same assertions made by those same factions back in the early 1990s.  After reviewing the heralded 100-plus-page document, GAO-05-869, Livestock Grazing, federal expenditures and receipts vary, depending on the agency and the purpose of the fee charged, but I discovered these “new” assertions are meant to sway the unknowing public to one side of the issue through the omission of “need-to-know” information.

          I love Babbitt’s use of the word combination “can” and “public land,” as that is true, but this is also true:

 (1)  Sound grazing management “can” prevent damage to and enhance any land;

(2)     There ceased to be “public lands” in 1976 with the enactment of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA); and

(3)     Federal land ranch allotments are a private property interest encumbered upon federal lands in the “nature of an easement” owned by ranchers.

The first point is a commonsense observation but, more subtly, the news bite leads the reader to believe overgrazing exists.  Ranchers know that if they do not manage soundly, they will not be in operation in the years to come.  They live on the land and have a sense of stewardship through knowing it.  It is not glamorous, high paying or easy, and they “can” be elsewhere, but they prefer this life and the work by choice.

The second and third points deal with the use of the phrase “public land.”  We are a nation of laws driven by definitions that federal agencies and special interest groups have pushed, lobbied and litigated to tweak the original intent of Congress for the creation of loopholes and shifts of control over our national and privately held resources.  “Public land,” as defined in the various land acts of Congress and several Supreme Court cases, is land “open for settlement and entry.”  These lands were declared closed when FLPMA passed.  Public lands settled prior were grandfathered in with all the easements, water, forage and other private property rights intact (in the language of the act: “subject to prior existing rights”).

These “prior existing rights” are recognized by the courts as a private property interest in the “nature of an easement encumbered upon federal lands.”  The Wayne Hage case proved this when the U. S. Court of Federal Clams senior judge wrote that out in his final determination on the issue.  Even the IRS taxes the heirs on these private property encumbrances as inherited real property when the ranch is passed on through the death of the allotment owner.   Therefore, it is not a lease of taxpayers’ land, as some would like the unknowing urban public and lawmakers to believe.

Federal agencies car bar entry on federal lands to anybody for just about any reason since FLPMA, and even get legal sanction if need be.  This includes the ranch allotment owners, mineral and oil operators, hunters, recreationists, bird-watchers, etc.  Since FLPMA, it is “federal land,” not “public land.”

“It has not helped them turn a profit” is an interesting comment, as the grazing formula was intended to be a flexible index and change according to market prices.  Using the Beef Cattle Price Index, Prices Paid Index and the Forage Value Index, it strives to keep what is known as “the ability to pay” on an equal basis with the market.  Private grazing fees don’t have this flexibility; they are set by a consumer-driven free market.

To understand what it takes to turn a profit, one must first understand that cattle producers are price takers – they cannot pass along their increased costs of operations in a demand/supply-driven market.  They take what the consumer is willing to pay, regardless of operating costs.

Federal- and private-land ranchers work with the weather as is, good or bad.  They operate under many government regulations and environmental restrictions.  They cannot pass on the sudden increased cost of fuel, and have to compete with foreign subsidized livestock that arrive on our market shelves below our production costs thanks to GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement).  What I call “conned-servation” easements don’t protect agriculture from any of these real pressures either, but that issue is for a different article.

Federal-land ranchers must also pay a permit fee of $1.79 per month per cow-calf as well as pay for all maintenance and improvements on their allotment (which may be a very long way from the ranch house), while actively managing the allotment herds.  This includes any fence lines, waterlines, roads, corrals, damages from acts of vandalism and so forth, resulting in actual costs to the federal-land rancher of roughly $16 a month per cow-calf.  These ranchers are rarely allowed to operate at full carrying capacity by federal agencies, and are often lucky just to break even on their investment and hard work (the GAO report didn’t point that out either).  In the best years, it’s a 2-3 percent net return on investment for ranchers, particularly for the ones who run on federal lands.  Nonfederal-land ranch leases don’t have this problem – the private landowner takes care of all that, and the contracted cattle as well.  It’s included in the private grazing fee, which is around $13.30 a month per cow-calf.  Also, most private land leases offer better ground with higher production.  Federal lands tend to be of lesser quality and have higher marginality of support; thus it takes more acres of federal land than private land for the same production level.

Another missed point is that the majority of federal-land ranchers do not run cattle on their allotments year-round as is the case with private land operations.  In most areas of the West’s high country, the weather simply won’t allow it.  Summer and winter pastures are typically in different geographic locations.  Most operations pull their core herd back to private land areas during the off-season (after selling their calf production for that season), and turn back out on the federal allotments during the two to four months of the growing season.

As for “responsible use of that land,” is responsible use doing nothing with it?  Is it shutting down the rural local economies, tax bases and cultures that have evolved around ranching?  Is it allowing it all to burn to the ground so one can use it?  And at what cost to the taxpayers?

Federal allotment owners can sell their private property and water interests on these allotments to the government.  They can move away from local economies and convert their smaller private fee lands, scattered throughout federal land, to high-end lucrative housing developments, thus changing the vary face, culture and environment of rural communities forever.  Did I mention that Babbitt moved into the real estate business when he left the Department of the Interior and potentially stands to gain from this conversion?

The GAO authors obviously haven’t read the very well-researched report, “Economic Characteristics of the Western Livestock Industry” (Fowler, Rush, Hawkes, Darden, Report 35, New Mexico State University, 1994).  After surveying hundreds of allotment owners throughout the West, it was determined that only about “57 percent of western ranchers would continue ranching on a smaller scale if access to federal AUMS of grazing was lost.”  The rest indicated they would either retire or seek a new occupation.

“The most drastic potential changes were reported in Arizona, California, and Colorado, where over one-third of all ranchers surveyed would convert their deeded lands to real estate as a viable option due to the proximity of large population centers . . .   However, the potential for environmental disturbance will accelerate as second homes, condos, and other developments encroach on adjacent riparian areas and sensitive winter wildlife habitat.  Across the West, 21 percent of ranchers would attempt to change to the appraised classification of a ‘higher and better’ use by converting private deeded land to real estate development.”

From all the families moving into these currently pristine “open space” landscapes would come increased demand on the local tax base, schools, government services and increased environmental pollution from soil runoff, sewage, increased oil and chemical products, etc.  The departing ranchers would abandon miles of currently maintained fence, water pipelines and watering sites, which would adversely impact all the game and endangered species that benefit from the federal-land rancher infrastructure.

The New Mexico report also shows that federal-land ranchers would prefer not to lose their allotments and develop.  These are taxpaying operational ranch operations that hire folks to work for them, who in turn spend in the local economy, are taxed and have families.  They pay grazing fees in addition to supply purchases from tires and gas to groceries and video rentals 

Calling for the increase of grazing fees and the end of ranching on federal lands is just one side of the expenditure equation that the GAO report addresses, and the only one.  The assertion is that users of these resources are charged a fee that is too low when compared to private lease fees, thus it should be raised to be on a par with private fee rates.  In all fairness, should this fee apply to just federal-land ranchers?  Or should this concept of resource use fees apply to all users of federal lands who incur a cost for maintaining the activity, such as hunters (who actually pay a habitat stamp/fee), hikers, bird-watchers, or ATV enthusiasts?

Ranchers are the only people on federal lands who actually pay into the system, although the grazing fees are not mingled with the general tax fund and are dedicated to expenditure of the administration and maintenance of the land from which the fee originated.  So the fee is truly not taxpayer money, which is not pointed out in the GAO report.

Recreational enthusiasts in the West enjoy unrestricted freedom of entry and use of practically all federal lands under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U. S. Forest Service (FS).  I often go to the local store, load up on groceries, supplies and fuel, and drive directly onto BLM lands with ranch allotments without filling out any paperwork, stopping to ask permission, or concerning myself with self-identification at any point.

I can drive for hundreds of miles down maintained roads in “open space” full of supported wildlife and endangered species.  I can hike, hunt, and camp in general access areas, wilderness study areas, and wilderness areas in about 56 percent of my state (the rest is private).  It only costs me a tank of gas and what preferred supplies I choose to bring.  I don’t spend another dime for entrance or user fees, or land-maintenance costs, nor do I stop to ask permission to enter federal land or the ranch allotment.

My hunting trips are typically successful, thanks to an abundance and diversity of game supported by the many watering holes maintained and paid for by the tax-paying federal-land rancher.  Hunting season goes from late August to spring across a wide assortment of game species that in the best of years amounts to almost an “all you can eat” six-month season.  All I pay is for a general state hunting permit and a federal habitat stamp.  About $38 this year and access to tens of millions of acres for free!  Can’t do that east of the Mississippi!

Other than my habitat stamp, the federal-land rancher and the federal agencies do not get a fee for my using their infrastructures.  Does that mean I am subsidized by the BLM or Forest Service, since Babbitt, et al, claim that ranchers are being subsidized by not paying enough!

A study conducted by the Property and Environment Research Center, located in Bozeman, Mont., entitled, “The Price We Pay,” by Holly Fretwell, revealed some rather interesting information.  What they discovered, from the BLM’s own records, is what it cost all taxpayers to enjoy their recreation of preference free of charge on these federal lands:  “Twenty percent of the nation’s land area (456 million acres) is controlled by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.  This federal estate encompasses a wealth of forests, grazing lands, minerals, wildlife, and recreational amenities with enormous potential to generate revenues for the public good.  Yet from 1994 these agencies lost an average of $290 million on timber, $66 million on grazing, and $355 million on recreation. 

  Over two years, $366 million was lost on recreation.  If you add in the $290 million for logging to the $66 million for grazing, you have $356 million for the revenue generation side of the federal-land –use equation.  Practical translation:  recreation is subsidized equal to all of grazing and timber combined!  Pressured through environmental lawsuits, agencies have shut down most logging operations (a renewable resource, for which taxpayers are now paying to fight catastrophic wildfires and to protect private properties).  Both logging and ranching are revenue-generating enterprises.

The GAO report failed to address information about federal land use.  It is a narrowly focused report on a single economic aspect of the multifaceted jewel of rural generational occupation of preference.

Why this constant interjection of the word preference?  Well, this nation was built on the principle of preference, the freedom to choose our own destiny in the pursuit of happiness.  Seems to me I remember something about this written and embodied in our founding documents, like the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.  We have the freedom to prefer whichever lifestyle and beliefs we choose, no matter how difficult or easy the path to get there.

I like and ride motorcycles.  I prefer older Harley Davidsons with certain custom attributes and thus I have a rigid-frame 1957 FLH PanHead, which means it has a powerful engine with no rear suspension and “can” be a rough ride, especially with the titanium I have in by back from spinal surgery.  It’s not new; I’ve rebuilt it ground up pretty near from scratch.  I do all my own work from the weld, across the paint and down to the spark.  I’m constantly tinkering with it so it’s always just right.  I could have bought a treaty-protected, foreign-made, new-and-improved, rubber-stamped, off-the-shelf, ready-to-ride, no-tinkering, shock-suspension, EPA-regulated imitation of one for the same money, but that is not the lifestyle of my preference or how I want to spend my money.  I prefer to keep it in the local economy.

I prefer working with my hands and having a sense of pride knowing that “this work is mine, built with my own ingenuity, and it is something that can be passed on and appreciated by others.”

It’s my way of wanting to live and pursue happiness, and leave my own legacy, much like those generational federal-land ranchers prefer out there in the “open space” country.  Like my bike, their life preference is a powerful and hard ride, but one of their own design, forged by their own hands.  There is a certain comfort that comes with that which cannot be bought – it has to be lived.  They pass this preference, knowledge and pride on to their kids.  This preference to seek you own destiny standing by the work of your own hands in the pursuit of happiness is far superior to one of no freedom of preference, on your knees with your hand out.

  I’ve taught that to my kids as it was taught to me by my elders.  It’s our nation’s legacy from its foundation.  I was taught (and used to believe) that we elected folks into office to look after and protect this legacy of preference.  I was taught and believe that we defend this freedom of preference at all costs and confront oppressive tyranny so that others may enjoy this freedom of preference.

I guess that’s why I wrote this article, to educate others and confront the political tyranny that threatens the federal-land ranchers’ freedom of preference in this nation.  I guess that’s why my firstborn son chose to be in the Navy and is now headed to the Persian Gulf; he was taught that and believes it, too.


Ric Frost is a policy analyst for the range improvement task force for New Mexico State University.



Published in Volume XIV, Number 1, Spring 2006 Range Magazine, pp 24-26.  ( Not available at http://www.rangemagazine.com/ )





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