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CPR Perspective: The Trade-off Myth of Livestock Grazing on Public Lands: Protecting Public Lands from Overgrazing

Climate Justice Public Protections

The Issue
Hundreds of millions of acres of public land that contain essential wildlife habitat, world-famous scenery, and outstanding recreational opportunities, and form the watersheds for much of the western United States.


America's western public lands contain an enormous bounty of natural resources. Some of these resources are marketable commodities such as oil, natural gas, timber, and minerals. But while the public lands are a significant source of these commodities, they are derived in greater quantities from privately owned lands.

Where the public lands are unrivaled is in the provision of non-commodity resources and services such as wildlife habitat, watersheds, natural beauty, and recreational opportunities. The National Forests, along with federal public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), provide habitat for thousands of species of animals and contain tens of thousands of miles of streams that constitute the headwaters of the great rivers of the west including the Columbia, the Rio Grande, and the Colorado. They also include millions of acres of spectacular desert, mountain, and canyon landscapes that are used by tens of millions of Americans each year for sightseeing, hiking, camping, hunting, fishing, and other recreational pursuits.

The National Forests and BLM lands also provide a relatively small amount of forage for domestic livestock B mostly cattle, but also some horses and sheep. Although almost all BLM lands, as well as the majority of the acreage of the National Forests, are made available for grazing by private livestock ranchers, these lands make a very small contribution to the national beef supply. Only about three percent of American cattle producers use the public lands, and these lands supply only about two percent of the nation's cattle feed. The reason is simple: most public lands are located in the arid and semi-arid intermountain west. They are too dry to be very productive of forage. Most ranchers, and their cattle, find greener pastures where it rains more: in the midwest and the south and along the west coast.

Nonetheless, for historical, political, and cultural reasons, maintaining livestock ranchers and their herds has always been a top priority for the BLM and the Forest Service. These agencies are usually extraordinarily reluctant to limit the reach of livestock grazing, to reduce livestock numbers, or to make other decisions that might raise the ire of their rancher-constituents.

What People are Fighting About

What's at Stake
Whether livestock grazing will be sufficiently limited and controlled to protect and maintain diverse ecosystems, functioning watersheds, clean water, healthy wildlife populations, and intact landscapes, or whether these resources will be degraded for the benefit of a relative handful of ranchers.

Although the number of livestock grazing the public lands is quite small from an economic perspective, they do a lot of environmental damage. For the most part, the arid and semi-arid lands of the intermountain west are not naturally adapted to grazing by herds of large ungulates. (The native range of the American bison is farther east, on the Great Plains.). The sparse and erratic rainfall, thin soils, and steep slopes of these lands make them highly susceptible to damage from grazing and slow, if not impossible, to recover once damaged. A century and more of grazing has led to the replacement of native grasses by invasive weeds, massive soil erosion, loss of wildlife habitat, water pollution, degradation of stream channels, and desecration of archaeological sites. Grazing has also disrupted natural grassland fire cycles in many areas of the west, leading to invasion of grasslands by shrubs and trees, increased density of forests and woodlands, and replacement of low-intensity, frequent fire regimes by less frequent, but much more destructive, high-intensity fires.

While much of the damage has already been done, continued grazing often prevents or slows recovery of native vegetation, promotes the spread of exotic plants, and pushes numerous threatened and endangered species closer to extinction. Grazing also frequently conflicts with recreational uses of the public lands by degrading natural scenery, polluting water sources, and covering campsites and hiking trails with manure and urine.

Public lands livestock grazing is also a drain on the federal treasury. The grazing fees paid by ranchers are quite low B less than two dollars per cow per month. These fees cover only about twenty percent of the direct expenses of administering the grazing program, let alone the indirect costs of measures needed to counteract and mitigate the impacts of grazing, such as fencing of riparian areas and other sensitive wildlife habitat, vegetation restoration projects, and fire suppression.

With respect to implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, livestock grazing has lagged behind other uses of the public lands. The BLM and the Forest Service at first did not even recognize that the issuance and renewal of grazing permits are federal "actions" requiring compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Litigation eventually established the applicability of these basic environmental mandates to public lands grazing, but the agencies have been very slow to come into compliance, and in the last decade Congress has placed special provisions in appropriations bills that have allowed grazing permits to be issued and renewed without compliance with these laws. As a result, the impacts of grazing on much of the public lands has still not been assessed under NEPA and the ESA.

In the Clinton administration, under Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, the BLM promulgated new regulations designed to reform livestock grazing practices on the 170 million acres of western rangelands that that agency manages. These regulations include standards and guidelines that prescribe minimally acceptable norms for the condition of rangelands, riparian areas, streams, and wildlife habitat. These regulations also clarified and expanded requirements for input by concerned citizens into grazing management decisions. However, in 2003, President Bush's Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, proposed major amendments to the regulations that would undo most of the Clinton-era reforms. The proposed amendments would nominally leave the environmental standards and guidelines in place, but would render them virtually unenforceable in practice. The amendments would also delete most of the regulations' requirements for input by members of the public other than ranchers, and would allow private ranchers to establish title to water rights and range developments on public lands.

The Bush/Norton proposed amendments to the grazing regulations have been criticized not only by citizens and environmental groups, but also by career professionals within the government. A draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) written by scientists in the BLM, but later re-written at the behest of displeased higher-ups, concluded that the amendments "will have a slow, long-term adverse impact on wildlife and biological diversity in general." Comments submitted by the western regional offices of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service observed that the amendments will "have the effect of making grazing a priority use over other uses," may result in "irreversible long-term impacts to vegetation communities and associated wildlife species," and "could be extremely detrimental to long-term range health of fish and wildlife resources."

More recently, in January 2006, the BLM proposed to further weaken protection of the public rangelands by categorically excluding most BLM grazing permits from environmental analysis under NEPA.

Another, less overt, change in public range policy under the Bush administration has been the administration's lack of cooperation with private efforts to resolve rangeland conflicts through voluntary financial transactions. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration had encouraged and facilitated such transactions by considering land-use plan amendments that would phase out grazing on some allotments at the request of conservation organizations who had obtained the permits for the allotments by purchasing ranches from willing sellers. Since it took office in 2001, the Bush administration has expressed hostility to these types of transactions and has backed away from some plan amendments that would have implemented them Lack of cooperation from the administration has discouraged further private investment in rangeland conservation.

CPR's Perspective

Decisions on the Table
Whether BLM will adopt the regulations it has proposed which would significantly weaken protection for public rangelands and expand the rights of ranchers over other users of these lands, limit public participation in grazing permit decisions, and privatize public grazing infrastructure and water rights

Whether Congress and/or the BLM will exempt grazing permits from environmental review

Whether Congress will continue to subsidize environmentally degrading grazing practices

CPR believes that livestock grazing is a legitimate use of some public lands, but that the special status historically afforded livestock ranching and livestock ranchers is irrational, unjustified, and inconsistent with today's laws. Grazing must take its place along side other, often more valuable, uses of the public lands. Specifically, management of grazing on the public lands must be based on the recognition that:

  • Under the law, grazing on public lands is not a right, but rather a privilege that may, and should, be revoked by the government where grazing is not in the public interest.
  • On most western public lands, non-commodity resources, including watersheds, wildlife habitat, and recreational opportunities, are of greater value than the livestock forage.
  • On some western public lands, the damage that grazing causes to other resources outweighs any economic benefits yielded by the grazing.
  • Informed grazing management requires opportunities for input by concerned citizens at all levels of decisionmaking, from broad-scale planning to detailed, on-the-ground implementation.

Recognizing these facts and principles, CPR recommends that:

  • The mechanisms for implementation of standards and guidelines for rangeland health be left in place rather than weakened as proposed by the Bush/Norton Administration in 2003.
  • Regulations requiring opportunities for input into rangeland decisions by citizens other than ranchers should be left in place rather than being deleted as proposed by the Bush/Norton administration in 2003.
  • Grazing permits should be subject to full scrutiny under environmental laws, including NEPA, the ESA, and the Clean Water Act.
  • The public should hold title to stockwater rights and to range developments located on public land.
  • As part of their statutorily mandated land use planning, the BLM and the Forest Service should systematically consider on which of their lands livestock grazing generates sufficient economic benefits to justify its costs to the taxpayers and its environmental impacts, and on which lands it does not. Where grazing cannot be environmentally and economically justified, it should be discontinued.
  • Public land grazing fees should be raised to recover all of the government's costs, direct and indirect, of operating the grazing program.
  • BLM and Forest Service regulations should be changed to facilitate the buyout of public lands ranches by conservation organizations from willing sellers.
Climate Justice Public Protections