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Radical Self-Lobotomy
by: Larry Walker, 9/29/03

Radical Self-Lobotomy: The act of sawing off one's own head using a dull, rusty knife. 

Representative Scott McInnis (R-CO) is circulating a "Dear Colleague" letter opposing proposed legislation for a voluntary grazing permit buyout.

If we assume that everything in the McInnis letter is true (and I have a couple of bridges for sale), then I must ask this question: "What prudent businessman, even a rancher, would not want to have the golden parachute option of voluntarily retiring a grazing permit for compensation of about three times fair market value of that permit as a fallback position?"

I will now try to answer my own question: "Only an individual of sufficient wealth and greed to believe that he/she can survive long-term adverse market conditions and pick up such grazing permits at a discount as the more marginal operations of other permit holders fail." Such has been the tradition and culture of the West for private lands as well as privileges to use public lands.

Now I will respond to some of the statements and accusations contained in the "dear colleague" letter. These are my own opinions and views and do not necessarily reflect those of any organizations that I may be affiliated with.

First, look at the groups backing this proposal. While I do not doubt that my Colleagues introducing this measure have forthright goals, you should be aware of the goals of some of the groups pushing these voluntary" retirements. According to Greenwire and statements in other press sources, the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign (NPLGC) overall goal is to eliminate all cattle grazing on public lands. (Brian Stembeck, "Grazing: Enviros trying to end public lands grazing, ranchers say range improving." 
Greenwire, Feb. 8, 2002).

Would not this be all the more reason for a prudent businessman to want the safety net of the proposed voluntary buyout? Also note that one of the primary supporters of the proposed legislation, the Arizona Permit Buyout Campaign, is supported by 154 Arizona grazing permittees and chaired by a Tonto National Forest permittee.

Second, these groups backing the legislation also have vigorous and well-funded legal teams that bankrupt ranchers while delaying and obstructing extensions of their grazing permits. So, if a rancher doesn't accept a "voluntary" buyout, they may become the unfortunate victim of lawsuits by well-funded groups targeting their grazing permits subject to renewal - potentially cutting off their ability to use these permits for years while the courts address the lawsuit against the BLM or Forest Service, to which they are only a bystander.

These tactics were well underway before the proposed buyout legislation was drafted, let alone had any congressional sponsorship. "Targeting" of vulnerable situations will continue - with or without buyout legislation, voluntary or otherwise. The willingness of some environmental organizations to compromise on a short-term partial solution of a voluntary buyout represents an exercise in pragmatism to hasten the process. Public lands ranchers and their supporters would be well advised to recognize that this may be a temporary state of affairs. They (the ranchers) no longer have enough political clout to get a generous compensation plan passed without some support from the environmental community, and their clout is getting weaker by the day. The environmental community is getting stronger by the day, though they also do not have enough political clout to get other options legislated - YET! Do the words "strike while the iron is hot" ring a bell for anybody with horseshoeing experience?

Third, many communities in the West are heavily dependent on ranches and public lands grazing, so eliminating grazing on public lands or similar steps toward that goal disproportionately impact the West. With all respect to my Colleagues, a bill that is the first step toward eliminating grazing on public lands championed by a member from the Northeast is a lot like me introducing a bill eliminating fishing in public waters off the New England coast.

The co-sponsor of the proposed legislation is from Arizona which, the last time I looked at a map, is not in "the Northeast."

If memory serves me correctly, fishing in public waters off the New England coast has already been reduced through a taxpayer funded voluntary buyout of fishing vessels and permits (please correct me if I am wrong on this). Is the ranching industry in the West entitled to any less?

Land ownership in the West is "disproportionately" public, so any uses (such as grazing) or impacts from changing those uses will also be "disproportionate".

Most communities in the West that were truly dependent on public lands grazing have either already diversified, or have become "ghost" towns. Two observations hold true for most that remain so "dependent": (1) a great many members of local ranching families derive part or most of their income from working in those communities rather than from ranching, and (2) many of the businesses employing ranch family members in those communities are either owned by ranchers who may receive more of their income from the business than the ranch, or are owned by former urbanites who relocated to the community largely to enjoy the amenity values of nearby public lands which would be enhanced by the retirement of grazing permits. It is the ranch families that are dependent on the communities in these situations, rather than the communities being dependent on the ranchers.

Fourth, this proposal turns grazing policy on its head. The grazing permit is not a property right, and cannot be separately sold. Currently, if a rancher chooses not to seek to renew the permit, that permit is then offered to other interested ranchers for grazing, subject of course to NEPA and other requirements. Allowing a single rancher who may have suffered an unfortunate string of bad years and drought to dictate the future use of public lands forever is a radical change in our public lands policy - and an abdication of Congress' and agencies' responsibility to make public lands use decisions.

Grazing policy was "turned on its head" by the way in which the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 (TGA) was implemented, and continues to this day. The TGA provided for the Secretary of the Interior to establish "grazing districts" on lands which "are chiefly valuable for grazing and raising forage crops". The responsibility to make this "chiefly valuable" determination was immediately abrogated to the ranchers by Ferrington Carpenter (see Carpenter interviews and other historic information at ) when he allowed the users to decide what public lands they wanted to be included within such "grazing districts" by merely voting amongst themselves. The "chiefly valuable" determination had still not been made when the Public Land Law Review Commission made its report "One Third of The Nations Lands" in 1970, and still has not been done despite a recent petition to the Secretary of Interior to do so!

Rather than standing grazing policy on its head, a voluntary buyout program would go a long way towards standing it back on its feet. As we enter the twenty-first century; NEPA, ESA, FLPMA, and other environmental statutes have been subjugated to early twentieth century law codifying nineteenth century practices and values for far too long!

Like fresh water, blue skies and big mountains, cattle ranching is an unmistakably important part of our heritage throughout the West. But like so many other important pieces of our western heritage, this way of life has come under withering assault by narrow-minded interest groups devoted to nothing less than building a wall between the American people and their federal lands. Ignoring over 150-years of evidence, these well-funded interest groups argue, wrongly, that grazing has no place on our public lands because of the damage they claim it does to our natural environment. I ask you to reject their radical view, and beware the first step along the path toward their ultimate goal of forcing cattle grazing -- and therefore American cattle ranchers -- off of the public lands.

Ah, the stale old "custom and culture" argument. First, let me point out that there are more ranchers who do not have permits to graze on public lands, than there are who do, in every state in the West except Nevada. Even if ALL grazing on public lands were terminated, the ranching tradition and culture would survive quite nicely on private lands (subject to economic and globalization forces).

Second, I want to point out that there are two ranching "cultures" in the West. There are those ranches that are based entirely on private lands, and there are those that are dependent on the subsidized and generally mismanaged use of public lands (e.g.. "welfare ranching"). Having grown up in the former and worked a career dealing with the later, I can assure you that the welfare culture of public lands ranching does not compare favorably! If they (the welfare ranchers) were culled from the herd, then just maybe the reduction in subsidized competition would allow Western ranches that operate on their own private lands to survive the new economy - or even prosper!