"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."