Western Land Rights Enter Spotlight after Amateur Pundit’s Celebrity

Approximately 245 million acres of land in the United States is publicly managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Close to two-thirds of that land, 155 million acres, is used for livestock grazing, based on permits and leases issued by the BLM.

A small fee, as well as the current system of permits and leases, helps protect American land from overuse, overgrazing, pollution, and helps ensure its continued viability for future generations.

For those who have been following the news recently, this is the same system of fees that Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy railed against during his 30 seconds of fame. Aside from other violations regarding the number of animals he was allowed to let graze on the public land and his resistance to following regulations that only allowed grazing during certain times of the year, Bundy’s gripe was that he had a right to use public lands without having to pay for their usage.

Annually, ranchers using public lands pay a fee for the use of the land, currently equal to $1.35 per animal per month. By comparison, ranchers would be expected to pay as much as $11.90 per animal per month for access to private land without irrigation. Ranchers utilizing public land are thus receiving a huge public subsidy that reduces their cattle feeding costs to about a tenth of what it would be if they relied on market-priced grazing land.

Unfortunately, the current federal fee is low enough that it does not cover environmental damage and effective maintenance of these public lands, one of our nation’s most unique natural resources. The U.S. Forest Service currently loses about $123 million on an annual basis administering the grazing program, which is overwhelmingly enjoyed by only a small minority of ranchers.

Public grazing only supports approximately 3 percent of the nation’s beef supply. There are on average 7.9 million animal units per month (AUM) that graze on public lands, and the ranchers who use public lands make up only 1 percent of all livestock producers. The benefits these ranchers receive as a result of public grazing is estimated to be as high as $500 million annually.

Environmental activists have been very vocal regarding the environmental destruction that grazing causes on public lands—the non-native species disrupt ecosystems, endanger native species, erode soil, and diminish water quality. The use of public lands for grazing and other private enterprise activities has, for example, contributed to the 98 percent reduction in the prairie dog population during the 20th century. Other impacts include the spread of non-native weeds, which increase the frequency of wildfires.

As a result, the operating costs associated with administering the public grazing program likely drastically underestimate the indirect costs of allowing public grazing. The estimates of total public grazing costs range from $500 million to as much as $1 billion per year in environmental damage.

As federal funding for everything from human nutrition to education has tightened in recent years, the cost of public grazing has been offered at a record low price to farmers. Fees for public grazing should account for environmental impacts and, at the very least, cover the administrative costs for the U.S. Forest Service to administer the program. Current subsidization of public grazing only benefits a small number of ranchers, and the current system of fees fails to account for the environmental costs that could jeopardize the stability of Western ecosystems in the future.

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