Opinion by Joe Guild & John Falen
How to ‘Vitalize’ Federal Lands Grazing
By Joe Guild, NCBA Federal Lands Committee chairman, and John Falen, Public Lands Council president
The U.S. beef industry is diverse – with a presence in all 50 states. However, despite that diversity, by and large, beef producers want the same thing. They want the opportunity to raise healthy beef in a free market environment. Private property owners take care of their land, think long-term, and nurture the resources with future generations in mind.
Another thing we all have in common is the growing size and scope of laws and regulations governing what we do and the challenges we all face. Federal lands ranchers have unique challenges. In Nevada, for example, 87 percent of the state is controlled by the federal government. In addition to caring for our animals, planning marketing strategies and managing our operations, we must also deal with the federal government that control vast acreages across the western states.
During the Western expansion, while most land passed into private hands, the less desirable, less productive lands became the public domain and were commonly used for livestock grazing. This grazing partnership system between livestock producers and the federal government has received much criticism. Some claim the lease rate is a subsidy and a government handout because it doesn’t compare to private land lease rates. In all reality and considering all factors, many federal lands ranchers pay more for their forage than private and state lessees.
In order to improve and sustain a productive federal lands grazing system, in the West, we have no choice but to work with the federal government to ensure workable policies and regulations govern our industry. Fortunately, some lawmakers have stepped up to promote free-market, private property-oriented qualities in the federal lands grazing program. Senator John Barrasso’s (R-Wyo.) Grazing Improvement Act of 2011 (S. 1129) would be a decisive step in that direction.
S. 1129 would provide elements of stability and certainty reflective of a free-market situation. It would decouple ranchers’ long-term business plans from the bogged-down regulatory backlog that places their futures on hold. Currently, ranchers depend on a year-to-year decision by Congress to allow for the renewal of their permits despite the regulatory backlog. Each year is a cliffhanger. S. 1129 would also reduce the backlog and provide cost-efficiency for the government by extending the life of permits from 10 to 20 years. All this will provide added security for ranchers and greatly reduce the opportunity for environmental litigation on minor process decisions.
In effect, S. 1129 proposes to provide to federal lands ranchers the same kind of stability that causes private landowners to think long-term of what kind of land and resources they want to pass down to the next generation.
Unfortunately, not all share Senator Barrasso’s goal of improving multiple-use industries’ ability to partner with the federal government to manage the land and its resources. Environmental extremists intent to mislead the general public about our industry in their attempt to drive all livestock off federal lands continue going to great lengths to end federal lands grazing.
Extremist environmental groups have hailed the recent introduction of H.R. 3234, the “Rural Economic Vitalization Act” (REVA), as a free-market permit buy-out solution. REVA would permanently retire grazing permits by allowing third parties to buy out ranchers’ permits with “reasonable compensation fees.” The authors propose allowing these buy-outs to help public lands ranchers who are finding that their permits are becoming “stranded investments.” They cite “growing conflicts” with “environmental protection and burgeoning recreational use” as major reasons for the increasingly steep uphill battle facing federal lands ranchers.
The truth is environmental extremists salivate over REVA not because it vitalizes rural America but because it provides them with an opportunity to pursue their actual agenda — getting livestock off the range while cloaking it in free market terms. They are now claiming that ranchers deserve to have more choice in their economic future.
Of course, ranchers can already sell their permits but the law requires their continued use for grazing, not for permanent retirement. Whereas current law allows only the federal government to curtail grazing on federal lands, REVA would make it easy for environmental groups to permanently shut it down.
Rather than working with commonsense lawmakers or with ranchers, REVA’s answer to alleviate ranching families’ struggles is simply to remove them from the picture. With the opportunity right in front of them to totally end grazing, environmental extremists will be encouraged to mount ever higher their onslaught of frivolous lawsuits. This is not a picture of rural economic vitalization. This is the definition of destruction.
While the authors of REVA were right that there are many pressures on federal lands ranchers to get out of the business, we must not succumb to the defeatist attitude that the only solution is to end grazing on the federal estate. Too many families and too many rural communities count on us to forge ahead to find answers that keep grazing as a viable part of the western landscape. Join with us to stand up for federal lands ranching and to work with lawmakers like Senator Barrasso to strengthen this industry for generations to come.