America’s food producers, who help keep the country’s supermarkets well supplied, rely on grazing rights, whose fees are a tax paid by the individual ranchers. They are not a government subsidy.
When MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow was reporting on the Cliven Bundy/Bureau of Land Management showdown during the first days of the Nevada confrontation, her delivery when she mentioned "grazing fees," sounded puzzled. Her voice and a dramatic pause reflected a kind of wonderment, or incredulity at the importance of the issue, according to RANGE magazine. RANGE, the recipient of a Freedom of the Press award, is the editorial voice for the people who help produce food and fiber for approximately 318 million Americans.
Given Maddow is a California native and Stanford- and Oxford-educated TV personality, she comes from a part of America that is a hotbed of agriculture and agricultural issues. Like most of her media peers, she gives the impression she doesn't understand grazing fees, and could also mistakenly believe that ranchers are on government "welfare."
"Nothing is further from the truth," says RANGE publisher C.J. Hadley, who has worked on these issues for more than 25 years. She is the former managing editor of Car & Driver in New York City and publisher/editor of Nevada Magazine. She is familiar with East and West. Hadley has a reputation of being feisty, therefore RANGE is an outspoken critic of human-caused problems that plague the West—public lands policies is at the top of the list.
"The topic of grazing fees is not sexy," says Hadley. "It can even be a real snoozer, unless you understand they impact every single American. Have breakfast today? Thank a rancher or farmer. Like your wool coat or suit? Thank a sheep man. How about that ham and cheese sandwich for lunch? Give a nod to the farmer and dairyman," she says. "The lack of commonsense and understanding is maddening and frustrating, and the federal government’s explanation is a bureaucratic boondoggle."
According to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), "An AUM—treated as equivalent measures for fee purposes—is the use of public lands by one cow and her calf, one horse, or five sheep or goats for a month." US Forest Service (USFS) grazing permits use herd months (HM). (No wonder Maddow and the mainstream media are put off, and offer superficial coverage.)
An important fact that needs to be remembered: in the case of the public lands there is no deed, so the land is managed and controlled by the federal government at the behest of the reigning political regimes in Washington since Nixon—policies that are far from those at the state level who are more in touch with what might be the most appropriate use of the land. That’s the basis for western states banding together and making plans to retake control of public lands, says Hadley.
Few Americans understand the ownership layers of these federally managed lands, and how they relate to grazing leases needed by producers to help fill grocery store shelves. Each parcel of land comes with several layers of "ownership." These layers may be all owned by one person or by separate people. There is the person who actually claims the land surface (in this case the federal government). There is the person or people who own the right to use the water, the mineral rights (oil, gas, coal, etc., that originates beneath the surface), and then there are the grazing rights (the right to use the herbaceous plant material growing on the land).
Anti-livestock folks often claim that the "cheap" grazing fees are a government subsidy for the owners of grazing rights. What critics don’t understand is the grazing permit holder actually owns the right to use the forage and has paid fair market value for it, paid taxes on it, and it is considered privately owned. The grazing fees are basically a property tax on the ownership of these rights. The public has the right to access and enjoy federal lands (as long as the federal government doesn’t object) even though there is private ownership existing that needs to be respected. This explains why grazing-permit holders get a little crabby when special-interest groups decide horses, buffalo, etc., should be allowed free access to "federally managed and controlled" land that is already encumbered with prior appropriated rights.
The calculated grazing fee, determined by a congressional formula, applies to nearly 18,000 grazing permits and leases administered by the BLM and more than 8,000 permits administered by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), according to the BLM.
The formula used for calculating the grazing fee, which was established by Congress in the 1978 Public Rangelands Improvement Act, has continued under a presidential Executive Order issued in 1986. Under that order, the grazing fee cannot fall below $1.35 per AUM, and any increase or decrease cannot exceed 25 percent of the previous year’s level.
The annually determined grazing fee is computed by using a 1966 base value of $1.23 per AUM and HM for livestock grazing on public lands in western states. Some grazing seasons are for a few weeks, others for several months during the year, and with proper management the cattle improve the resource. The figure is then calculated according to three factors—current private grazing land lease rates, beef cattle prices, and the cost of livestock production. In effect, the fee rises, falls, or stays the same based on market conditions, with livestock operators paying more when conditions are better and less when conditions have declined.
The 2014 grazing fee of $1.35 per AUM and HM applies to 16 western states on public lands administered by the BLM and the USFS. The states are Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
You do the math: if a rancher owns 500 head of cattle at $1.35 per AUM, he pays $675 for each month of use, just for the right to graze. That doesn’t take into account range improvements (including upkeep of fences, improved water sources for livestock and wildlife on public lands), plus being a constant caretaker of those empty places. And it doesn’t take into account vet bills caused by other users, winter feed, etc., and the desperation when wildfires destroy the land where the cattle graze. One Nevada rancher paid many thousands of dollars to ship his livestock to another area of the state where they could find feed.
"That does NOT meet the welfare test," says Hadley.