Why grazing fees are the third rail of western politics

Eric Pianin

Long before Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy became a conservative folk hero last month for battling the government, federal grazing fees have been a flashpoint of controversy between western cattle ranchers and agencies that govern the use of remote, sprawling and environmentally sensitive western lands.

Bundy, a states' rights advocate who refuses to acknowledge the federal government's authority over the land, owes the Bureau of Land Management more than $1 million in fees and penalties. For the past 20 years, he's let his cattle make unauthorized use of government land.

American flags flies near a highway sign alerting motorists of possible cattle along Nevada Highway 170 on April 24, 2014 in Bunkerville, Nevada.
Getty Images

Last month, armed U.S. rangers in helicopters and on horseback rounded up 389 of Bundy's nearly 1,000 head of cattle before backing off in a showdown with hundreds of Bundy supporters, some of them armed. Members of the Bundy family later unlawfully let the cattle loose, according to a BLM spokesman.

Bundy was momentarily a cause celebre of conservative Republicans – including Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Dean Heller of Nevada – before he was exposed by The New York Times as a racist who said "Negro" people might be better off in slavery. Paul, Cruz and Heller all quickly dropped their support for Bundy, and Heller has called on Bundy to pay the $1 million he owes the government.

The BLM, the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies managing public range lands in 16 states were mandated by Congress to treat the grazing program as a giveaway – with no effort to make it self-sustaining.

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The monthly grazing fee of $1.35 per head of cattle – which hasn't changed in the past seven years – barely covers a sixth of the government's overall management costs including issuing permits. Even so, some like Bundy have refused to pay even a pittance for access to the public lands, and ranchers and their allies on Capitol Hill erupted over any attempt to raise those fees.

"Raising the fee has been a long-time goal of many wildlife activists, but it's a bit of a third rail in western politics," Chris Clarke, a California-based natural history and environmental journalist, recently wrote.

"The biggest thing to understand here is that the grazing fee is not a cost-recovery fee," Tom Gorey, a spokesman for the BLM, said Wednesday in an interview. If you want to blame Congress for that, go ahead, because they created the formula that we use."

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Public lands grazing fees are set according to a formula Congress enacted as part of the 1978 Public Rangelands Improvement Act. It was reaffirmed by an executive order signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.

BLM says that the grazing fees – computed from a 1966 base value of $1.23 per head of cattle – are periodically recalibrated to reflect current private grazing rates, beef prices and livestock production costs.

By some accounts, a standard full-grown cow weighs 1,050 pounds. At that size, a cow eats about 26 pounds of foliage a day, or 780 pounds a month – all for the generous price of just $1.35. Ranchers and their political allies insist that the monthly fee is fair in light of market conditions, weather and the considerable hardships involved in raising cattle in these remote spots.

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Environmentalists and other critics of the program say the fees have been kept artificially low for far too long, and that they foster abuse and degradation of fragile public lands. Livestock grazing takes up more federal land than any other commercial use, covering more than 155 million acres.

"From our perspective it's a bit of a perversion of a market situation," said Bobby McEnaney, senior lands analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Grazing on federal lands is certainly a challenge and we appreciate the difficulty that many ranchers face to try to make operations work."

"But the fact the fee is so artificially low acts as a disincentive to ensure that those lands are being used in the most sustainable way possible," he added.

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Gorey of the BLM dismisses environmentalists' complaints about the puny size of the grazing fees as a "subterfuge."

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"Many of these groups plainly don't want cattle ranching," Gorey said. "They don't view grazing as a legitimate use of the public lands. Well, Congress begs to differ. . . . There is kind of an indifference [on the part of environmentalists] to the economic impact to rural communities."

Efforts by the Obama administration in recent years to boost the grazing fees have encountered stiff opposition from cattlemen and their Capitol Hill allies, including an effort last year to slap a tax on the fees.

"We think it's safe to say this administration does not understand American agriculture," Dustin Van Liew, the director of federal lands for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said last year. "The current grazing fee is fair. In fact, most public lands ranchers already pay market price for their federal forage, when considering factors such as added regulatory costs . . . and the difficulties of managing livestock in rough, arid rangelands."

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While western ranchers have enjoyed low grazing fees for nearly four decades, the BLM, the Forest Service and other agencies have often resorted to tough, no holds barred tactics to collect the fees from recalcitrant or financially hard-pressed cattlemen – or those who have overstayed their lease.

Those tactics have included sending in government cowboys on horseback or in helicopters to confiscate cattle – as in the Bundy case. But few government officials have stuck their necks out to seek an increase in the grazing fees. The last time a top BLM official attempted to raise the grazing fee, it cost him his job.

Jim Baca was forced to resign as BLM director in 1993 after only nine months in office following a political uproar over his proposal to boost the grazing fee to just under $4. Clinton administration Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt reportedly made it clear to Baca that his services were no longer desired.

Baca later recalled for reporters that he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a piece of paper containing his resignation. "I told him it was probably best if I went on," Baca explained, according to one report.

—By Eric Pianin of The Fiscal Times