Wild West Welfare

“The western cattle industry has been riding the backs of taxpayers for nearly seventy years”

–T.H. Watkins, 2002

Few have profited more or longer off of American taxpayers than livestock operators who graze the public lands of the American West. Tens of thousands of square miles there have, for more than three quarters of a century, been managed essentially as grazing estates for a small minority of “permittees” – individuals or corporations holding federal grazing permits.

The scheme dates back to the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM, known at the time as the Grazing Service) placed millions of acres into “grazing allotments”. Over ensuing generations politics influenced regulations, so that permittees pay a trivial fraction of market demand. Laws typically mandate that allotments be grazed, so that if someone were to acquire a permit with the idea of protecting the land by removing domestic livestock, the permit would have to be transferred to an interest that would continue grazing.

The standard unit of measure is an “animal unit per month (AUM) – a cow plus calf or 5 sheep. To graze livestock on private land today in Montana costs $21 per AUM, but permittees pay $1.35, an imbalance typical for the public lands throughout the West. The difference, money due taxpayers, marks a unique welfare system carefully kept away from public awareness. This is not a petty issue. The BLM alone has 155 million acres in grazing allotments, and the U.S. Forest Service grazes another 95 million acres of national forest land. Together, it amounts to 8% of the contiguous United States, an area that, if seen as a square, would be 625 miles on a side – equal in extent to Montana, Wyoming and both Dakotas combined.

It is a bitter irony that the corporate world and its congressional agents, intent on killing governmental regulations so that their imaginary “free market” can go forth unhindered, protect public land welfare ranchers at taxpayer expense. If a free market is truly central to conservative philosophy, should not conservative legislators be working to guarantee that We The People get paid what the free market demands for use of our public lands, instead of a pittance?

Permits are simply 10-year leases subject to termination, and permittees lease nothing but grazing rights. Permits do not convey any property rights, and permittees are not due any compensation should permits be terminated or reduced. But for generations permits have been renewed automatically without question so that permittees, such as Cliven Bundy of recent fame, have come to think of public land they graze as a kind of personal property. So ingrained is the assumption that the welfare will be permanent that ranches have been sold as if public lands under permit were a fixed part of the ranch itself, and it is not uncommon for US citizens to be run off of their own public land by permittees, sometimes at gunpoint.

The situation has become even more senseless in the last 25 years or so, in that permittees are being paid lavish sums to “sell” their grazing permits (which, understand, they never owned in the first place) where grazing is especially damaging, where there are efforts to protect wilderness values, or, amazingly, if a permittee simply wants to retire. Permits funded by taxpayers and meant only as a privilege subject to termination, can now be “bought out”, which amounts to a double jackpot for permittees.

A startling example of the practice was an 850,000-acre buyout in 2004, in Utah-Arizona, with grazing allotments in both BLM and national forest lands, for which the seller received a whopping $4.5 million. The buyers, the Grand Canyon Trust and the Conservation Fund, are major promoters of the buyout philosophy that, ironically, is being called “free-market environmentalism”, a startling misnomer in that it rewards a blatant welfare system.

An email earlier this year to one of the trusts involved in that exchange was answered with “Permits were assumed as part of the acquisition of the ranch – meaning, the Trust did not buy-out the permits, but continues to operate under those permits.” Whoa! “The Ranch” the seller actually owned was only 1000 acres, and one is supposed to believe that 1000 acres of desert is what $4.5 million was paid for … and, oh, by the way, permits for 850,000 acres (1300 square miles) were incidental, so, technically, it was not a buyout? Please! The purchase was obviously for access to the permits. But even though the allotments are now under the control of those conservation organizations, the land must nevertheless be managed for grazing, as the law demands. The only difference, presumably, is that the new permittees will treat the land differently.

If the goal of this “technically not a buyout” buyout was to manage grazing on public land allotments in a more environmentally appropriate way … which naturally suggests it was not being managed well by the original permittee (who is now $4.5 million richer) …  why, logical citizen-owners of public land might ask, were the BLM and Forest Service not enforcing a gentler treatment of the public’s land with the previous permittee?

More recently, an April 22, 2014 Wall Street Journal article described an Arizona rancher who had been “having difficulties with hikers and other land users on the allotment” [i.e., citizen owners of the land], receiving several hundred thousand dollars in 2003 from the Conservation Fund in exchange for his permit to graze 44,000 acres of public land. This the Journal reported as a positive outcome: “No violence, no protesters, no armed federal agents – just a check and a contract.” In other words, if U.S. citizens don’t want trouble from permittees they have been supporting financially for generations, they need to understand that these welfare ranchers, many extremely wealthy, expect to be paid yet more. To add to the insanity of it all, many permittees who have benefited for so long from governmental/taxpayer largesse, nevertheless despise “Big Government”.

The BLM, and the U.S. Forest Service are under no legal obligation to renew permits and could simply terminate them, but, as explained to me in less than great depth, “They just don’t”. As to why not, “Permittees don’t want their permits revoked”. Well, why would they? Living large off of taxpayers is a hell of a great deal, and permittees have wielded such political clout that western congressional representatives protect them. The whole setup simply reeks of rot.

Political clout extends into many western environmental organizations.  George Wuerthner, who once worked for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, wrote in a recent issue of The Wildlife News that “GYC expressly forbade me to discuss livestock production’s contribution to the issues that the organization was highlighting; ….. [W]hen I was asked to discuss the threats to the ecosystem at the organization’s annual board meeting, I was not allowed to mention livestock production even though many of the issues the group was fighting could be traced back to ranching as the ultimate source of the environmental problem. Whether it was dewatering of rivers for irrigation and its detrimental impacts of fisheries, to the spread of disease from domestic sheep to wild bighorn sheep, from the killing of bison that wandered from Yellowstone Park to opposition to wolf recovery to the continued policy of elk feed grounds in Wyoming, the ultimate source of the problem was and is livestock. However, GYC was unwilling to frame the issue that way for fear of antagonizing its board and/or regional politicians.”

Livestock grazing is a major function of some governmental bureaus, particularly of the BLM, so that any reduction of the livestock program would naturally undercut the bureaucratic need to self-perpetuate. In order to promote public lands grazing, the BLM relies heavily on proclaiming its role in maintaining a lifestyle, seemingly as if it were the Bureau’s patriotic imperative: “Livestock grazing on public lands … provides livestock-based economic opportunities … while contributing to the West’s, and America’s, social fabric and identity … and help preserve the character of the rural West.” The “system” is absolutely absurd, and few citizens are aware of its immense magnitude, the degree to which it has become firmly rooted, and the level at which they, as taxpayers, are being “fleeced”

By now, permits for millions of acres of grazing allotments have been assumed by conservation organizations that are nevertheless obliged by law to continue livestock grazing, which they attempt to do at the lowest level allowable and in hopes that there will someday emerge federal legislation that might end livestock grazing on public land altogether. This is costing millions of private-sector dollars from foundations, from corporate and citizen donations, and from what other “deep pockets” are willing to pay up. By rights, though, none of this should be necessary, given that permits were created as temporary grazing privileges.

When one tries to fit all aspects together, what emerges is a logically indefensible, covert setup involving wealthy permittees, protective legislators and governmental bureaucrats, and the result is a $500,000,000-one billion dollar per year taxpayer victimization and the ongoing degradation of a fragile, arid environment for which domestic livestock are biologically unsuited. It is a scenario so firmly in place that the bulk of the environmental community, by paying for control of permits, and by lobbying for buyout legislation, has simply caved in to the rotten political state of affairs.

The best single source of information for this issue is the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, foremost advocate for a federal buyout program that would pay permittees $175 per AUM to retire permits. On the left side of their website are internal links to all relevant data and arguments, as well as their admission that, to use their own words, “politically, we do not have the option to simply stop paying for the federal grazing program.” Politically!

Advocates for the buyout strategy admit that it is “morally repugnant to reward resource abuse by paying to retire permit/leases”, but because they understand that domestic livestock has “done more damage to North America than the bulldozer and chainsaw combined” they have made the conscious decision to yield to the corrupt industrial/political/bureaucratic gridlock by paying the public’s way out of the mess. “While a long and glorious [sic], principled fight to end public lands livestock grazing through litigation and attrition may succeed in the end”, they write, “many species, ecosystems and watersheds already on the brink could not tolerate further livestock grazing over the time required to win on principle alone.”

Directors and lawyers for environmental organizations buying control of permits, and those lobbying for federal buyout legislation, are loathe to speak about details of their strategy, because it reveals the degree to which they have yielded to what they understand is “morally repugnant”. It makes any discussion that adheres to logic and the public interest very difficult. All things considered, the concept of buying out grazing permits, however accomplished, is a complete surrender by people who see no other path available toward ending a destructive governmental-industrial swindle of the Nation’s citizens.

Bill Willers is emeritus professor of biology, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh now living in Middleton, WI. He is founder of Superior Wilderness Action Network (SWAN) and editor of Learning to Listen to the Land and Unmanaged Landscapes, both from Island Press.