Privatizing public land? Start with grazing fees

Ammon Bundy’s supporters occupied a federal wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon. Soon they’ll occupy another federal facility — prison. One of their goals has been to privatize public lands. With 600 million acres of public land and more than 330 million Americans that means we would all get about two acres each. Once privatized, where would ranchers run their livestock?

Ah, so these flag-waving, self-styled “patriots” do not really believe all Americans should have a slice of public lands. They want ranchers to own adjacent public lands. That seems like a drastic move, but let’s give it a try. Let’s start by privatizing grazing fees on public lands so ranchers can understand how a free market system works.

Effective March 1, 2016, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service raised grazing fees to $2.11 monthly per AUM, or animal unit a month. That equals one cow and calf or five sheep. Though this is a 25-percent hike over last year’s $1.69 fee, it is still woefully below fair market value.

The new fee will impact 8,000 permits on Forest Service lands and 18,000 permits on BLM leases to cover 235 million acres. Both the Public Lands Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association support the fee increase, but environmental groups call it welfare ranching and a waste of the West. Why? Because in 2014 the BLM and Forest Service spent $144 million on grazing programs and earned a piddling $19 million in lease income. According to one study, “Appropriations for the BLM and USFS grazing programs have exceeded grazing receipts by at least $120 million annually since 2002.”

We’ve got an Old West legacy in a New West economy. It costs more to manage federal lands grazing than the public sees in financial returns. “Taxpayers are getting a raw deal regarding grazing,” believes Travis Bruner, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project. “In addition to losing ecological functions, wildlife habitat, and scenery, Americans are supporting a narrow welfare program for the benefit of Western livestock operations.”

Some ranchers complain about federal fees, but in 16 western states, grazing costs on public land are 80 percent cheaper than the market rate on private land. Where do those grazing fees go? Half of the dollars return as cattle guards, fencing, corrals, stock ponds and other improvements to benefit stockmen.

Then there’s Wildlife Services, which slaughters native predators like bobcats, wolves, black bears, cougars, foxes, and a coyote every 8½ minutes according to a recent story in High Country News. For a century taxpayers have footed the bill to make public lands safer for sheep and cattle.

Truth be told, Western public lands ranching may be a proud tradition, but less than 5 percent of livestock consumed in the U.S. is produced on public land. There’s better grass in Missouri and Florida and more of it.

Bundy’s supporters want to privatize public lands. OK. Let’s start with grazing fees, which would balloon to about $20 for every animal unit per month. We’d have to cancel range improvements. We’d ground the Wildlife Service’s paid killers. And if we were serious about capitalism and free enterprise, we’d open grazing allotments for public bid just like oil and gas leases. If environmental groups moved to outbid cattle ranchers and sheepmen to protect high country meadows, with privatized public land, why not?

Old West sentimentality and Western heritage bump up hard against 21st century economics. “Grazing on federal land accounts for less than 1 percent of total income and employment in most of the region,” according to the economist Thomas Power. Meanwhile, “recreation and tourism have become ever more important,” writes James Surowiecki in the New Yorker. He adds, “Demonizing the federal government and trying to resuscitate the past may have its demagogic appeal. But the Old West is gone, and it isn’t coming back.” 

I’d rather see a cow than a condo. I like beef, though I prefer elk and venison, and for Christmas dinner this year we had leg of lamb with jalapeno mint jelly. Most Americans live in cities and suburbs. They don’t know which end of a cow gets up first. But those city slickers do know about sweetheart subsidies and they know what steak or lamb costs at the supermarket.

As an historian, I believe in tradition. I believe in the hard work generations of ranching families have put into living in a semi-arid Western landscape. Public lands ranching has a place in the American West, but ranchers should stop spouting anti-government rhetoric. Quit complaining about the feds. Distance yourselves as far as possible from the likes of Ammon Bundy and the sagebrush rebels. Privatize public lands? Be careful what you ask for.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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