Idaho officials get first-hand look at grazing lands

Aug 6, 2010

The Idaho Wool Growers Association (IWGA) conducted a July 19 tour of rangeland grazed by 35,000 sheep and 12,000 head of cattle north of Soda Springs to show the state’s leaders firsthand that well-managed livestock do not harm the environment and provide an economic boost to southeast Idaho towns and public education.

The Idaho Citizens Grazing Association and Eastern Idaho Grazing Association graze nearly a quarter million acres in the area that stretches from Gray’s Lake, ID, to the east and the Fort Hall Indian Reservation on the west, and 12 miles north of Soda Springs, ID, to about 30 miles south of Idaho Falls, ID.

Because much of the land is state-owned, user fees paid by ranchers go into the Idaho Department of Lands’ endowment fund earmarked for public education. The two grazing associations graze 8 percent of Idaho-owned lands but provide 20 percent of all endowment fund revenues.

The endowment fund provides about $30 million to Idaho public education in a normal year, but this year, reserves had to be tapped to raise $53 million. Superintendent of Public Education Tom Luna, an Idaho Land Board member, told the ranchers that extra money preserved up to 500 teaching jobs statewide this year.

Speaking at lunch, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter added that school children were the biggest beneficiaries of ranching operations in the region.

Pat Brown, Idaho Department of Lands’ eastern Idaho supervisor, said both the associations have invested much capital in improving the range over the years. About 100 families compose the two grazing associations that graze on state and private lands in the area.

Brown said the very productive region provides some of the best rangeland in Idaho.

IWGA Executive Director Stan Boyd said the region is crucial for the state’s sheep industry. Sheep rancher Henry Etcheverry said many people view livestock owners as land barons who don’t care about anything but profits because of claims made by environmentalists opposed to public land grazing.

Both Boyd and Etcheverry cited the area’s scenic beauty as proof ranchers are good stewards of public lands, which allow them to support their families and positively impact the state’s economy. Etcheverry noted that the better the landscape, the better the feed conditions and the better livestock benefits.

Not only do ranchers pay wages, they also buy feed, fuel, supplies and equipment from area businesses, Etcheverry stressed.

Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, a director of the Idaho Citizens Grazing Association, said area ranchers have pumped water into storage tanks and flowed it into troughs to keep livestock from impacting streams in riparian areas.

Ranchers have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on improving rangelands, including investments in fencing and water development. The programs are to ensure ranchers remain in the area 100 years from now, IWGA President Ken Wixom said. — Mark Mendiola, WLJ Correspondent