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Enviros Eye Graze Buyout

by Tam Moore, Capital Press Staff Writer
Capital Press, November 2, 2001

A group of environmental organizations that's been heavily involved in lawsuits attacking public land grazing wants the livestock industry to join in supporting buyout of federal grazing permits.

"It's not impossible to do that; that's not saying it would be easy to do. I want to stress we are talking about willing sellers," said Andy Kerr, an Oregon environmental consultant and executive director of the recently formed National Public Lands Grazing Campaign.

Kerr will introduce the campaign and give details on proposed buyout legislation at a Nov 10 and 11 gazing activists conference at Arizona State University in Tempe. He said the campaign--steering committee hit on $175 per animal unit month as a buyout price high enough to rate consideration by most permitees.

An animal unit month is the amount of forage consumed by a cow and her calf or five head of sheep.

Kerr said data gathered by the campaign show a typical public land ranch sale values AUMs at about $75.

A 1992 survey in 11 Western states by New Mexico State University showed that average permit values per AUM varied from a low of $30.10 in Nevada to a high of $89.10 in Arizona where most ranches hold year-around permits.

The cost, if all 21,000 public land grazing permits were retired, would be $1 billion, said Jon Marvel, whose Western Watersheds Project is part of the campaign steering committee.

"Retirement with government funding makes sense to conservation groups, because the government created this mess we are in," Marvel said. "It is obligated to help us get out of it."

Marvel and others contend livestock grazing is an "inappropriate" use of public land that damages ecosystems and requires a federal subsidy to make it work.

Stockmen, many of whom have adjudicated grazing rights as a result of the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act, contend range conditions are improving and counter that they make substantial investment in range improvements such as water holes shared by stock and wildlife.

Kerr said making retirement of permits work needs legislative support from livestock industry groups with clout in Congress.

Earlier this year, Kerr consulted with a coalition urging willing-seller buyouts of farmland in the water-short federal Klamath Reclamation Project. That concept was opposed by organized agriculture and appears to be out of the running for Klamath-assistance legislation making its way through Congress this fall.

Other campaign steering committee member groups in addition to Marvel's organization are Committee for the Idaho High Desert, Oregon Natural Desert Association, Forest Guardians of Santa Fe, Center for Biological Diversity with headquarters in Tucson and American Lands Alliance created by former Rep. Jim Jontz, D-Ind., to deal with forest environmental issues.

Of the six groups, all but American Lands are persistent litigators of public grazing lawsuits brought under a variety of federal laws.

Center for Biological Diversity and Forest Guardians brought the suit that in 1998 resulted in a settlement with the U.S. Forest Service that closed 230 miles of the Gila River system to grazing, displacing an estimated 15,000 head of cattle.

Kerr was a highly visible member of Oregon Natural Resources Council staff mostly noted for speaking out on forestry issues.

He resigned in 1996. He's been part of several grazing battles during two decades and stepped up his interest after becoming a consultant.

Kerr said the buyout idea first surfaced in the environmental community during a 1996 Washington, D.C., meeting of activists. Most represented groups involved in battles to raise federal grazing permit fees.

Congress repeatedly rejected proposals to renew the fee law that expired many years ago, resulting in retention of a formula dating back to 1966.

While a strategy of retiring permits through purchase has been around for five years, Kerr said leaders of many environmental groups refused to acknowledge that grazing permits had value and are a significant consideration in sale of public land ranches.

"I think there's a new-found interest in the conservation community that these permits have value," Kerr said.

The argument he will make at next week's grazing activists' conference is that despite the high cost, buyout of willing sellers will save U.S. taxpayers money they spend in administering federal lands and answering environmental lawsuits.

Government data show that, for a variety of reasons, the number of AUMs has been on a steady decline the past two decades. BLM, which has allotments on 170 million acres of public lands, has about 9 million AUMs while the U.S. Forest Service has just under 7 million. In many cases USFS reduced forest grazing because a curtailment in timber sales since 1994 meant fewer new tree plantations that provide forage opportunities for a decade after timber harvest.

While typical public land ranches have held permits for more than 30 years, Kerr said information collected by his campaign indicates that 70 percent of permits will change hands in the next 10 years. Kerr figures that's the time when a ranch owner is most apt to consider a buyout separating the base ranch from federal forage.

PLC Skeptical, But Will Listen

Public Lands Council, a consortium of four agriculture groups that lobbies for public land grazing, isn't likely to give much support to the federal permit buyout proposal environmentalists will float next week.

"I'm not saying we won't listen," said Scott Klundt, associate director of PLC and a National Cattlemen's Beef Association staff attorney.

PLC, whose members include NCBA, American Sheep Industries, American Farm Bureau Federation and National Grasslands Association, formed nearly a decade ago to coordinate livestock industry response to federal grazing policy and environmental lawsuits affecting grazing.

Klundt notes that in the recent past, NCBA's Federal Lands Committee considered and rejected a willing-seller proposal advanced by what was known as the "Guerrilla Grazing Group", a coalition of stockmen from the Southwest and Idaho and some environmental groups.

Generally, NCBA' federal lands policy has been to dismiss policy suggestions from environmental activists. "If they are for it, we are against it," said Klundt as he considered how the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign will be received by NCBA committee members.

Committee chairman Chuck Jones, who coordinates public land ranching operations of Idaho's giant J.R. Simplot Co., could not be reached for comment.

Mike Byrne of Tulelake, Calif., a past chairman of NCBA's Federal Lands Committee, said, "We would probably seek to require them (BLM and USFS) to fulfill the law that requires these (allotments) be grazed."

Byrne said the industry has held that permits are something holders are free to sell, but for grazing use by another operation, not retirement from the system.

Oregon Cattlemen's Association has never talked about a position on willing-seller retirement of federal grazing permits, said John O'Keeffe of Adel, the Public Lands Committee chairman. But he says, "We've been talking about it in coffee shops."

O'Keeffe, himself a permittee, takes issue with the basic premise of anti-grazing activists.

"I don't agree for a minute that the entire West is in an ecological downspin. It's not," O'Keeffe said.

He predicts that most ranchers will oppose purchase of grazing permits as a way to retire them.. What could get stockmen's support, O'Keeffe said, is a concept of grass banks" where ranchers sell the permit back to the agency that holds the allotment as a reserve that can be used if ecological problems turn up on another allotment.

"That would give a place to shift to, so we can deal with these environmental conflicts a little better."

In Southern Oregon's Lake County, O'Keeffe's home range, it took several years for operators to find alternate forage when U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service canceled four grazing permits on Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge.

Tam Moore, Capital Press Staff Writer
Enviros Eye Graze Buyout
Capital Press, November 2, 2001

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