The Sacred Cows Return to the Public Trough…Again and Again

by Bob Ferris
Cattle Grazing Helps Maintain The Land:
• Grazing minimizes non-native plant growth;
• Grazing reduces wildfire risk by decreasing flammable material on the land;
• Grazing contributes to soil stabilization;
• Grazing promotes grass tilling, plant reproduction, and healthy plant communities.  Oregon Cattlemen’s Association website
Proof that there are at least some who actually believe claims like the above made by the livestock industry—in spite of a huge body of contradictory science—comes from companion bills recently introduced in the House and Senate.   
(c) Terms; Conditions.—The terms and conditions (except the termination date) contained in an expired, transferred, or waived permit or lease described in subsection (b) shall continue in effect under a renewed or reissued permit or lease until the date on which the Secretary concerned completes the processing of the renewed or reissued permit or lease that is the subject of the expired, transferred, or waived permit or lease, in compliance with each applicable law. From H.R. 657
The House bill introduced by Tea Party favorite Raul Labrador (R-ID)—H.R. 657 or the Grazing Improvement Act—extends the length of grazing leases from 10 years to 20, acts to exclude the public from the permitting process, and lets expired leases continue in the absence of action by the involved agencies.  Congressman Labrador’s lifetime League of Conservation voters score is 7%.
The parallel bill in the Senate—S. 258—was introduced by Senator Barrasso (R-WY).  If that name rings a bell it might be because this was the Senator who backed the terrible wilderness bill that the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation first endorsed and then—once their membership rebelled—opposed because it was so bad for elk.  The Senator, who is also an MD, is pushing for LNG export which would require fracking in the intermountain states which is not a positive development for wildlife either.  Senator Barrasso’s lifetime LCV score is 13%.  
"Livestock grazing is the most damaging use of public land."
– Bruce Babbitt, former Secretary of the Interior
These bills are so contrary to the interests of the American public and wildlife that they are almost painful.  Let’s start with climate change.  Science is telling us that we have to take drastic steps to ameliorate our current greenhouse gas contributions and mitigate our past actions.  One set of options for that involves lowering methane-leaking livestock numbers on public lands and also taking steps to allow cattle and sheep-hammered habitats to recover.  This set of bills greatly reduces our abilities to undertake these needed actions.  Why when we know that we need flexibility and creativity do we want to lock ourselves in deeper and tighter to a system that has already proven itself broken?
The economics and social equity arguments are also a little twisted too.  Why at a time when we are pinching pennies and cutting social programs for the economically challenged are we making it easier for a very small class of citizens to undertake an activity which costs us hundreds of millions more than we receive in fees not counting the impact of below market fees and the not insignificant ecological damage our public lands and resources suffer?  Why would we want to do all this for an industry whose relative contribution to the economy—even in rural areas—is diminishing?
The economics on this deserve examination.  First we know that the entire cattle industry in the US produces about $60 billion in revenue annually in a $14 trillion dollar economy.  As only 2% of beef is produced on federal public lands we are talking somewhere in the vicinity of $1.2 billion dollars for which the US tax payer pays around $124 million in cash outlay.  I know a lot of us would love to get that kind of return on our investment but these figures do not include the associated damages to water quality, wildlife and ecological services as well as predator control costs and revenues lost via below market grazing fees which have been estimated to be as high as $500 million to $1 billion annually.  Given this, public lands grazing in the West starts looking more and more like the “bridge to nowhere” or the $700 toilet seat.  
The automatic lease extension is also interesting, because commercial leases (unlike residential leases) normally do not have clauses that allow them to extend or convert to month-to-month arrangements upon expiration.  So in addition to pumping way too much money into this anachronistic undertaking we would be granting them additional privileges that none of the rest of us enjoy.   Again, why?
Images and associations are important in all of this and one that sticks with me is a campaign picture from Senator Barrasso’s flicker account.  It shows the candidate at a Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation event.  He is talking with Kevin Hurley with the Wild Sheep Foundation at the Cody, Wyoming.  What strikes me about this photo is not the candidate or Mr. Hurley, it is the fact that the elk is out of focus and overshadowed by an image of a cowboy.  Whether purposeful or accidental the fact that the elk is fuzzy and secondary to a romantic image of the livestock industry at a RMEF function is metaphoric of the problem that trophy hunting organizations suffer when they try to serve two masters and end up compromising their apparent missions.  Most of the rest of us see the right course here and that is to contact our representatives and senators and ask them to oppose this ecologically and economically indefensible legislation.  Please join us in this and future actions to bring reform to this antiquated and unfairly administered program.  Follow this link to contact elected officials.


6 thoughts on “The Sacred Cows Return to the Public Trough…Again and Again

  1. LLowe says:

    We should eliminate ALL federal subsidies for ranching along with grazing on all public lands. It would certainly cut down the deficit if these businesses paid what they SHOULD be paying.  As a small business owner, it's MY responsibility to take care of MY rent, MY overhead, MY insurance fees and to deal with MY losses. The government isn't sending me a check to reimburse me and these people shouldn't be getting one either!

  2. Richard Giallanzo says:

    This is more examples against wildlife.

  3. Animal agriculture grazing on public lands is just as destructive an antithesis to ecological integrity on "private" land—"private" being an artifical distinction. Let's not forget that most grazed "livestock" is fed crops grown specifically to feed them. That cropland covers the majority of what was once prairie ecosystems, one to two percent of which remain. There appears still to be a resistance to changing our human ecology among ecosystem / fish and wildlife "management" professionals on a personal level. A vegan human human ecology, among other changes, addresses this and other issues from a consistently biocentric response from us. Thank you for your post and data. It may nudge others along. Meanwhile, wolves, and thus ecosystems, are under seige from the very same people you cite. 

  4. BobMc says:

    Why have Democrats joined the Republicans in continued degradation of the environment, all to appease a minute minority? The so-called "Grazing Improvement Act," S 258, was passed out of a Democratic-controlled committee, Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and ordered to be reported with amendments favorably on November 21, 2013. The Committee is headed by Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a supposed friend of the environment, and includes Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington, a state that is environmentally oriented.

    So, it's not enough that a few ranchers have a sweetheart deal that lasts for ten years, and is usually renewed without fanfare. In spite of the 2005 GAO report that stated "The 10 federal agencies’ grazing fees generated about $21 million in fiscal year 2004—less than one-sixth of the expenditures [at least $144 million] to manage grazing," the 'improvement' would have the leases last for 20 years, and not be subject to environmental protections, or review. "Public Lands Grazing: The more you know, the more you know you're being milked!"

  5. I can see how you are all frustrated with the industry, but I hope you understand that the reason we ranch is to feed the world. You personally might not eat beef, but hundreds of thousands of families do. We do what we can to provide a good low cost product for our consumers. I wish we didn't have to run on federal lands. The government poorly manages them and they are terrible to work with. However, having the land it takes to have the feed to raise the amount of beef we are  being demanded of means that we use what is available. We make it our responsibility to be stewards of the land and we care for it so that it can remain profitable and usable year after year. You may not agree with and may never see eye to eye with a rancher, but please respect what they are trying to do. Go meet a real rancher. 

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