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.”
READ THE REST OF THIS ARTICLE HERE.
William 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.