September 18, 1997 in Idaho

Higher Grazing Fees Sought From Ranchers In Gop Bill But Lease Renewal Rights Strengthened, To Lend Stability

Curt Anderson Associated Press
 

Fees paid by ranchers to graze cattle and sheep on federal land would rise by more than a third under legislation unveiled today by House Republicans, but ranchers would gain some protections as well.

Rep. Bob Smith, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said the bill is intended to provide some stability to the Western cattle industry.

“We need something to make sure this industry can go to the bank and say, look, these are my fees and I’m going to be able to graze these cattle,” Smith, R-Ore., said in an interview.

Nonetheless, some environmental groups found Smith’s approach deficient, saying it does not do enough to restore and protect vast areas of Western land and gives dominant land use rights to ranchers at the expense of hunters, anglers and other recreation enthusiasts.

“Too often, and in too many places, poorly managed grazing has degraded the public’s resources: water, wildlife, fish, recreation, archaeological,” Frances Hunt of The Wilderness Society told the livestock panel of the House Agriculture Committee today.

Michael Dombeck, chief of the Forest Service, declined comment on Smith’s bill, saying he hadn’t yet read the final version.

Ranchers throughout the West rely on 270 million acres of federal land to feed their cattle and sheep, but Smith said they must deal with regulations that often conflict with an unstable fee system.

Under Smith’s bill, the grazing fee would rise from about $1.35 per animal now to $1.84, an increase of 36 percent. It would be based on a new formula determined by the cost of feeding a cow and calf or five sheep for one month.

The fee is much lower than that charged by private landowners, which can reach $8 or more per animal. But Smith said federal land is not as desirable and shouldn’t cost as much.

“They are the roughest lands. They are certainly not equal to private lands, or even state lands,” Smith said.

Hunt, however, said the fee is still a “bargain basement” deal that will “return only a fraction of the costs of the federal grazing program to taxpayers.” The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management spend about $5.81 per animal per month on grazing.

In addition, the measure maintains a rancher’s tenure, or right to renew a permit or lease each 10 years, provided all environmental rules are observed. And ranchers would not be required to have access to the public rangeland from adjacent private land.

The bill would also increase the focus on science-based assessment of any environmental impact to the land of grazing.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the largest beef trade group in the country, and a sheep rancher’s organization expressed support for the legislation even though it does not address many other issues of concern to ranchers.

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