Once again, Congress is taking up a proposal to increase grazing fees on public land by 500 percent by 1996 - a move that would surely put most Utah ranchers who use public land out of business within a short time. A similar measure was passed by the House of Representatives last year but got no further.
The arguments for raising the fees from slightly less than $2 per animal per month to some $8.70 usually involve elimination of a federally-subsidized "bargain" for livestock owners, the generation of more income to care for public range lands, and even a desire on the part of some environmentalists to simply remove sheep and cattle from public lands.Farmers and ranchers in the Western states who use public lands say their operations are only marginally profitable and a five-fold boost in some of their operating costs would bankrupt them. Even a highly prosperous business would have trouble with a 500 percent increase in costs.
And if the idea is to generate more money, raising fees to the point that they put ranchers out of business would result in less grazing-fee income, not more. One cannot get more milk by killing the cow.
Particularly irritating is the fact that efforts to hike range fees normally are made by people who function in a different environment from the arid West with its preponderance of federally-owned land. For example, the fee-hike proposal is offered by Rep. Mike Synar of Oklahoma, a state with no public lands.
Backers of the fee increase say public land grazing ought to be comparable to grazing fees charged by private land owners and that any difference amounts to a federal "subsidy" for ranchers.
Yet this view ignores the fact that public land users have many other costs associated with that use besides the grazing fee. Ranchers must also take care of herding, fencing, water improvements and salting on the public lands they use.
The argument can be made that grazing fees on public lands have been at the same relatively low level for many years and should be raised. And some modest boost probably could be defended - but 500 percent hike? A federal formula already exists that makes yearly adjustments. It takes into account beef prices and private grazing land fees. Based on this formula, the grazing fee will be raised 16 cents to $1.97 on March 1.
There are those who acknowledge that a massive fee hike might drive public land ranchers out of business, but say such ranchers make up only 7 percent of livestock producers in 16 Western states. The fact that they are a minority does not justify putting them out of business.
Ranching on public lands in the dry, far-flung West is not highly profitable. Competition from large feed lots and private holdings is serious. In fact, there are shrinking numbers of such livestock producers.
If ranchers can't make it in the normal course of events, so be it. But let's not deliberately give them a push out of the industry - and call it an act of "fairness."