Western agricultural groups say a June lawsuit filed by five environmental groups in U.S. District Court is threatening the livelihoods of more than 20,000 ranchers who use federal lands for livestock grazing.
But environmentalists counter that grazing is destructive to public lands and is burdensome to taxpayers. Their complaint seeks amendments to grazing fee regulations and requests that the National Environmental Policy Act be used in determining fees.
When announcing the lawsuit in June, Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns manager for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the “federal grazing program is as fiscally irresponsible as it is ecologically harmful.”
“In responding to our petition,” McKinnon said, “the government must now choose between correcting and continuing the subsidized destruction of America’s public land.”
The Montana Farm Bureau Federation announced in September that it’s one of 27 organizations, including 11 other Western farm bureaus, to intervene in the litigation. The agricultural groups are represented by the Mountain States Legal Foundation.
In an op-ed column, William Perry Pendley of the Mountain States Legal Foundation wrote that, while there have been numerous challenges to federal grazing regulations, the current lawsuit is “the biggest challenge yet” from environmental groups.
“For western ranchers and their families, the communities that depend upon them, and the wide-open landscapes that they savor and save daily, much hangs in the balance,” Pendley wrote.
Jake Cummins, executive vice president of Montana’s farm bureau, said last week if the environmental groups prevail in the lawsuit, the increase in grazing fees would be “untenable” for most ranchers. Cummins notes that 30 percent of land in Montana is federal, and in other Western states it’s twice that much.
“If you take (federal grazing) out of operation, that’s going to result in a lot of people not being able to maintain their ranching business,” Cummins said. “Ranching is a marginal business anyway, and with this you’re going to see a lot of these ranches converted to subdivisions.”
The lawsuit, filed in district court in Washington D.C., is the latest shakeup in a decades-long tussle over grazing on land managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
The BLM manages more public land than any federal agency at 245 million acres. Of that, nearly 160 million acres have livestock grazing. The Forest Service manages just under 200 million acres, about half of which has grazing. Combined, the agencies administer more than 25,000 grazing permits.
Federal livestock grazing policy dates back to the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act, and then later the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 and the Public Rangelands Improvement Act of 1978. The 1978 act established a formula for determining fees on an annual basis.
Disagreements between environmentalists and ranchers over public grazing is nothing new, though the tension has been especially discernible over the last two decades dating back to the national environmental campaign “Cattle Free in ’93,” Cummins said. During that campaign, environmentalists demanded that the Clinton administration vacate all grazing permits and leases for federal lands.
While philosophies on public grazing shifted under the Clinton and Bush administrations, the fee structure remained the same. The Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition to increase grazing fees in 2005. The June complaint was filed to compel federal agencies to respond to the petition.
For 2010, the BLM and Forest Service set grazing fees at $1.35 per animal unit month (AUM). But the Center for Biological Diversity asserts that fees must be between $7.64 and $12.26 per AUM to recover costs.
Cummins said the fee system has withstood numerous challenges and was reinforced by a 1986 presidential executive order because it’s both “reasonable” and “equitable.”
“It’s a process that’s proven to be successful in the West and it’s frustrating for those of us who work in the agricultural industry to deal with this never-ending attempt to demonize ranchers and drive them off land,” Cummins said.
“Maybe if you see a cow, it offends your sensibilities,” he added. “But personally, I like steak.”
Environmentalists say livestock grazing destroys habitat and imperils wildlife, while the public foots the bill through subsidies. McKinnon said last week the complaint aims to raise fees so that full costs are recovered and not passed on to taxpayers.
“That’s why these groups have intervened, because this threatens a massive public subsidy,” McKinnon said. “There’s a whole host of costs shouldered by the public for the livestock industry using public lands.”
But Cummins said the only federal land he knows of in the Montana vicinity to be damaged by overgrazing is Yellowstone National Park, and the culprits are bison.
“Why are bison better than cattle?” he said. “That’s something that escapes me. Why is that better than having managed grazing? I challenge you to drive around the state and show me where there’s been real harm done.”
He added: “These people filing the lawsuits aren’t from Montana; they’re filing them from offices somewhere else.”
None of the five environmental groups have headquarters in Montana. The Center for Biological Diversity is based out of Tucson, Ariz., but has “250,000 members and online activists” with offices across the country.
Occasional property disputes arise when livestock are allowed to roam on federal lands. Gordon Brimhall, who owns 24 acres in the Trego area, said his neighbors have federal grazing permits and their cattle spend substantial time on his property.
Brimhall said he’s been told he should build a fence, but he said it’s not his responsibility to fork out money for a fence, adding that he’s disabled. He said he’s spoken to the cattle owners and the proper authorities but nothing’s been done.
“The other neighbors are angry too, but they’ve given up,” Brimhall said. “I’m to my wit’s end.”
Cummins said property disputes are inevitable but added that the federal agencies and lease holders work hard to prevent such problems.
“To suggest that there’s never a dispute between people who have adjoining properties – it happens but it’s generally resolved,” Cummins said.
The permits, Cummins said, “aren’t just issued willy nilly,” and the qualifying ranchers make necessary improvements to the land, including water and fences. Public lands maintained for grazing, Cummins added, often benefit wildlife as well.
Lillian Ostendorf, a rancher in southeastern Montana, said many BLM lands were initially bypassed by homesteaders because of their poor habitat. She said the only reason the BLM land that her family runs cattle on today is suitable for use – including by wildlife – is because they provide water and take care of it.
“We maintain the fences, pay for watering improvements,” Ostendorf said. “We foot the bill for that and those costs have gone up too. It’s just a poor time to be adding costs to farmers’ and ranchers’ bottom lines.”
Ostendorf said, if grazing fees are increased, the effect will be even more damaging to some of her neighbors who have far more BLM-leased land.
“It could be devastating to their operations,” she said. “This is an important issue.”
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