In 2015, ranchers paid the federal government $1.69 per animal unit month (AUM) to allow their livestock to graze on federal land. As of March, that amount has risen to $2.11, a 25 percent increase. Utah Rep. Rob Bishop has called the fee hike “outlandish,” and most of the approximately 22,000 public-land ranchers are likely to agree.
But critics are quick to point out that a $2.11 AUM fee pales in comparison to private grazing leases, which are often nearly 10 times that amount. Travis Bruner, the executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, told High Country News that “taxpayers are getting a raw deal regarding grazing” and that the current system constitutes nothing more than “a narrow welfare program for the benefit of Western livestock operations.”
That position presupposes that the government is somehow doing the ranchers a favor by allowing them on public lands at all. There is a growing body of evidence, however, that there is a genuine environmental benefit to well-managed grazing. In 2015, the Utah Legislature recognized that well-managed public land can naturally sequester carbon emissions and passed HCR 8 in an effort to achieve that goal. Grazing is a critical component of that process, as it regularly turns the soil and makes it more fertile than land that is left untouched and untended. Of course, overgrazing can become a problem, but the idea that the government would be better off without any private animals grazing on public land is belied by the facts.
The Center for American Progress, a nonprofit think tank headquartered in Washington, outlines another compelling reason to encourage grazing on federal land. In a recent report titled “The Disappearing West,” the group found that from 2001 to 2011, 4,300 square miles of open Western land were lost to development. “Every 2.5 minutes, the American West loses a football field's worth of natural area to human development,” its website states.
The group's answer to this problem is to preserve that land by purchasing it for private environmental groups. Yet the more cost-effective solution is to encourage and even expand grazing on public lands.
Ranchers who rely on public land to provide their income have a strong economic incentive to be wise stewards of the source of their livelihood. They therefore have a vested interest in the approximately 100 million undeveloped acres of land on which their livestock currently graze. Such a drastic hike in grazing fees is sure to put a dent in their business, which means the land they’re using is much more likely to be gobbled up by developers.
This is a situation in which people on both sides of the issue should be able to find common ground. And the less expensive that ground is, the better.