As far as Kelly Wilcox of Price is concerned, the House voted Monday to put her out of business, along with every other Utah rancher who grazes livestock on public lands.
It voted 251-155 on an amendment to quintuple the grazing fees that ranchers pay for use of lands administered by the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. The amendment was added to the House Interior Appropriations Bill."I don't know how to emphasize this enough. It will wipe out the ranching industry as we know it in this area and throughout the western United States," Wilcox said. Her family grazes about 800 cattle around Price and is among many ranchers who tried unsuccessfully to dissuade Congress from the increase.
"Any business would have a tough time handling a 500 percent cost increase, and it is devastating. On top of that for the past two years here, there's been a real bad drought throughout southern Utah," she said by telephone. "It won't only hurt ranchers. A lot of the local economy depends on money from us."
But the House was persuaded by a group led by Rep. Mike Synar, D-Okla., that ranchers had not been paying their fair share in the past, were unfairly subsidized, often harmed land through overgrazing and should have fees hiked to help balance the budget.
The Synar amendment would raise the fee over the next four years from $1.81 to $8.35 per "animal unit month," or the grazing of one cow and calf for one month. That $8.35 is what the government now charges for animals found to be "trespassing" and eating grass on the wrong side of the fence.
Much of the debate was not merely about how high grazing fees should be, but whether support of the amendment by such environmental groups as The Wilderness Society and the National Wildlife Federation meant it was a backdoor attempt to remove livestock from public lands.
Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, told the House the bill is "a thinly veiled attempt to force cattle off public lands. Environmental extremists have said for a long time, `Cattle-free in '93.' And this measure will make that pledge a reality."
He added, "This amendment is not about raising revenues. How is it going to raise revenues when all it does is force people out of business?" Rep. Howard Nielson, R-Utah, also said he believed increases should be much more gradual, and otherwise will force people out of business.
Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, voted "present" on the bill - rather than for or against it - because he is part-owner of a grazing permit. His press secretary, Art Kingdom, said the House ethics committee recommended he put his share up for sale, which he has.
Owens' "present" vote may also have kept competing constituencies from getting angry at him: environmental groups, which he often supports, and Utah ranchers.
Western House members had for years bottled up attempts to change grazing fee formulas in the House Interior Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands. But the full House, where a majority of members come from urban and Eastern areas, used Synar's amendment to force the change.
The Senate, where rural senators have more power because of equal representation for each state, must still consider the measure. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, on Monday vowed a fight. He also said, "I think it's another way of just trying to get our cattle producers and other livestock producers off federal lands."
Wilcox and other ranchers were also upset that Synar and others said that the $8.35 per animal unit month is fair because it is closer to what grazing fees are on private land.
"But there's a big difference. On public land we have to build our own fences, maintain the land, develop water rights . . . that benefit wildlife as well as livestock," Wilcox said. "On private land, all that is paid by the landlord."
The Utah-based National Federal Lands Conference even said that operational costs on top of present federal grazing fees would result in a total cost of $9.97 per animal unit month, while total similar costs for grazing on private land would be $8.50.
Nielson said he would like to see the federal government transfer much of its rangeland to private ownership, which would eliminate any subsidies and force grazers to cover all costs of range management.