Legislation would permanently close grazing

Dec 2, 2011

A cadre of environmental activist groups is celebrating the presentation to Congress of new legislation that would allow for grazing permit buy-outs. If passed, the bill would require the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service (Forest Service) to permanently terminate grazing on an allotment if a rancher waived use of the permit as part of a third-party transaction.

The legislation would provide an avenue for environmental groups to pay ranchers, possibly at rates well above market value, to per manently terminate grazing on an allotment.

Brian Ertz, media director for Western Watersheds Project (WWP), heralded the bill as a “winwin” for environmental activists and for public lands ranchers who elect to profit from the termination of grazing on multiple-use lands.

“The passage of this legislation promises to open a new collaborative front in our efforts to restore western watersheds and wildlife by enabling an effective means of working with public land ranchers and administering agencies to ensure lasting natural resource conflict resolution,” Ertz wrote in a press release.

“Even heavily subsidized public lands ranching has become untenable for some public lands ranchers. In the face of increasing competition, falling prices, rising costs, and mounting conflicts with other land uses, many federal grazing permit holders would choose to retire from public lands grazing if they could recoup their investment in their grazing permit,” Ertz continued. “REVA provides a private market mechanism to do this.”

The Rural Economic Vitalization Act, or “REVA” (H.R. 3432), was introduced by Rep. Adam Smith, D-WA, along with six original cosponsors including Reps.

Raul Grijalva, D-AZ, Barbara Lee, D-WA, Earl Blumenauer, D-OR, and Peter DeFazio, D-OR, all from public lands ranching states.

According to Mike Hudak, Grazing Committee chair for the Sierra Club, the primary author of the bill was Mark Salvo of WildEarth Guardians.

“He’s lived it for eight years,”

Hudak remarked, referring to several similar bills that have been submitted, and died, in Congress over the past decade.

The language of the bill states that grazing is incompatible with other uses of public land such as recreation and environmental conservation.

In an emailed message to congress members soliciting their co-sponsorship of the bill, Smith claimed that public lands ranching damages the environment, harms wildlife, and is a waste of taxpayer dollars.

“The federal grazing program is among the most environmentally destructive, fiscally wasteful, and economically inefficient uses of our public lands,” Smith wrote, citing a 2004 Government Accountability Office report which indicated that BLM and the Forest Service were jointly losing $115 million dollars a year in administering the grazing program.

A number of environmental groups were involved in creation of the bill. In the WWP press release, Ertz thanked the Sierra Club’s Grazing Team, WildEarth Guardians, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, “and other members of the REVA team whose tireless effort at home and in Washington, D.C., have brought about this encouraging development.”

The language in REVA claims that permits have become “stranded investments” for many ranches, and proposes that an option to sell out permits to thirdparty buyers “would help recapitalize an ailing sector of rural America” by giving ranchers the opportunity to restructure, retire or start new businesses.

According to the “Rural Vitalization System” proposed in the bill, ranchers could negotiate a price with third parties to waive their possession of a grazing permit. If a rancher did relinquish a permit under such an arrangement, either the secretary of Interior or the secretary of Agriculture would be required to permanently terminate grazing on that allotment.

“There’s a long history of these permits having value on the real estate market, explained Hudak. “But they only have that value when they’re attached to a base property. Now, a rancher can realize value in those permits separate from the sale of his ranch.”

Contrary to Hudak’s claim, it has long been a standard practice for ranchers to retain their base property and sell one or more permits to other ranchers in the interest of downsizing. But the REVA legislation would give ranchers a new option: to profit from the permanent termination of grazing on the allotment, as opposed to selling it to another rancher.

“It puts that decisionmaking power into the hands of the rancher rather than in the hands of the management agency,” Hudak explained.

Putting the decision of whether multiple use lands will be permanently closed to grazing in the hands of private parties raises the question of how radically REVA would reshape the key pieces of legislation governing grazing on lands already designated for that use by Congress.

According to public lands attorney William Myers III of Holland and Hart, the automatic retirement and permanent withdrawal of grazing lands from congressionally-designated grazing districts that the REVA legislation contemplates is in conflict with the Taylor Grazing Act (TGA), and possibly also with the Federal Land Policy Management Act (FLPMA). If RE- VA were passed into law, Myers explained, REVA would have precedence as the latest pronouncement of Congress, causing conflicting sections of TGA and FLPMA to be “repealed by implication.”

Presently, only an act of Congress can permanently end grazing on designated grazing lands.

Myers also voiced his suspicion that REVA might set the stage for increased litigation by aggressive non-profit organizations against agency and ranchers as a means of leveraging permit buyouts. In the past, many ranchers have found themselves financially strapped after lengthy lawsuits filed by environmental groups. Myers suggested that REVA would provide an added incentive to litigate since environmental groups could permanently eliminate grazing on allotments by making permittees financially desperate enough to sell to them.

Hudak was more skeptical.

“I don’t see that this really enables those organizations to litigate any more than they would anyway. Those organizations have been litigating, and will continue to litigate,” Hudak remarked, adding, “I think this legislation is a plus for the ranchers, so if their allotment is litigated over, they have the opportunity to still realize some value in those permits rather than having them be worthless.”— —Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent