Anti-grazing legislators recently reintroduced a bill to allow third-party buyouts of grazing permits for permanent retirement. Cosponsors included Reps. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), Raúl Grijalva (D-N.M.), Jim Moran (D-Virg.), Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and others. Their goal: to “address the wasteful, environmentally damaging, and economically inefficient federal grazing policy on our public lands” by providing a “voluntary, non-regulatory, market based solution to public lands grazing conflicts.” The rhetoric is familiar, as is the bill: iterations of the ironically-named “Rural Economic Vitalization Act” (H.R. 2201) have been introduced in multiple sessions of Congress. Last year, REVA was introduced but never saw a hearing and died in committee.
For the low-information individual, the talking points used by the sponsors of REVA may seem valid. However, the misconceptions they present are easily dispelled. For example, the importance of grazing on public lands to the economy and national production of livestock can be summed by these facts: about 40% of the beef cows in the West and half the nation’s sheep herd spend some time on public lands. The benefits of grazing to rangeland health, watersheds, and biodiversity are well-documented.
In order to prevent further such damaging, backroom agreements, the Sunshine for Regulatory Decrees and Settlements Act calls for opportunities for public comment and hearings on the proposed consent agreement, and requires the agency to respond to all of the comments in filings to the court; requires the court to take into account provisions and time frames for agency actions laid out in the Administrative Procedure Act; and requires agencies to report annually to Congress on civil actions and consent decrees.
Putting aside the so-called “conflicts” associated with grazing (which happens to very compatible with other multiple uses), the premise underlying REVA’s “voluntary, non-regulatory, market based solution” is flawed. While ranchers’ grazing preference rights on federal lands constitute a property interest, the fact that the land itself is owned by the federal government means that ranchers are obligated to operate alongside other multiple uses. In order to remain a compatible “multiple user”, ranchers must live up to federally-mandated standards and withstand public scrutiny and litigation. These regulations and the resulting litigation constitute a major cost to ranchers. Radical, multi-million dollar anti-grazing groups are keenly aware of this fact, and constantly work toward eliminating grazing by litigating or threatening litigation to push livestock off the range. If permit buyouts become legal, these groups will easily succeed at making grazing on public lands too costly and miserable to continue—and many ranchers are likely to eventually buckle under the pressure. There can be no “market based solution” when the buyer is able to ratchet up ranchers’ cost of doing business and artificially create “willing sellers.”
According to REVA, once permits are bought out, they would then be permanently retired. Grazing across 250 million acres of the West would gradually disappear. So would the jobs and economic activity supported by a huge portion of the western ranching industry. The many rural communities dependent on ranching would wither on the vine—unless once-open ranchland could be converted to more profitable uses, such as development. In any case, the cultural and environmental losses would be incomprehensible.
In the coming days, we will be providing the above points (and more) to Congress as part of a “myths and facts” document. While the bill has little chance of advancing, we will continue educating members of Congress who may be unaware of its potentially damaging impacts.