In the early days of the West, thousands of settlers created ranching habitats by commingling their homesteads with vast unclaimed rangelands. While cultivating the more productive land near the rivers and streams, their livestock roamed adjacent ranges of the public domain — generally the poorer, timbered and less accessible lands.

For several decades, successors of those pioneers maintained a firm hand on the use and management of the open ranges. With passage of the Classification and Multiple Use Act of 1964, though, cattle and sheep producers had to begin sharing the public domain with the region's exploding population.

Today, the 40-year-old, multiple-use doctrine that defined grazing in the West faces a serious threat. Beyond a demand for “sharing,” a strident and vocal few now want the resources of the public domain all for themselves.

A history of acrimony

The early West's era of unregulated grazing on the public domain persisted until 1906, when stockmen using the nation's forest reserves faced the first fee structures. Grazing limitations were established and allotments were divided among the local ranchers.

But, grazing across the unforested prairies remained largely uncontrolled until passage of the Taylor Grazing Act (TGA) in 1934. That legislation also paved the way for creation of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in 1947.

About 214 million of the 262 million acres of BLM-managed land are now classified as rangelands, as are 76 million of the 191 million acres managed by the U.S. Forest Service. An estimated 40% of all Western beef-cattle inventories, managed by 25,000+ permittees, spend some time on these lands.

From the start, ranchers and government land managers have shared a guarded partnership, at best. It began to turn acrimonious when multiple-use collided with the nation's environmental awakening of the early '70s.

Public lands ranchers were suddenly in the crosshairs of “green” activists, thirsty cities, and wildlife and sportsmen's organizations. College-educated range managers waltzed into town armed with law books, preaching the new notion of ecosystem management.

Rules, regs and tarnished images

More rules came with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 and the National Forest Management Act. Others followed — the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Public Rangelands Improvement Act, Federal Advisory Committee Act and the National Historic Preservation Act.

The regulations increasingly impinged on permit holders' abilities to manage the range resources — and threatened their private property rights in varying degrees.

By the 1980s, permittees were entangled in a web of judicial decisions that further shaped policies on plant and animal management, water quality and public access. The value of permits began to erode as multiple-use encroached beyond original agreements. Many permittees suffered grazing cutbacks; some were forced out of business.

Ironically, public lands operators had to fight the image of “welfare ranchers” and “Rolex cowboys.” Public-lands ranching was depicted as a massive government giveaway to a small group of elite businessmen.

Some “private land” ranchers helped stoke that perception. That's despite studies showing that, when all costs of private and public forage are compared, ranchers, in many cases, pay more for public range than private graziers, and at greater risk and lower returns.

Babbitt's reforms

In 1995, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt enacted his “Rangeland Reform” grazing regulations. In 1996, U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer struck them down and enjoined their enforcement. But, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with most of Babbitt's reform ideas.

Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear PLC v. Babbitt. The Public Lands Council (PLC) spearheaded the case, arguing Babbitt was in conflict with laws like TGA, and that his reforms violated the multiple-use doctrine.

The case was seen as critical to the livelihoods of public lands ranchers across the West. A PLC victory would warn federal agencies to think twice before enacting new regulations outside the current body of law. But on May 15, 2000, the Supreme Court sided with Babbitt, ruling the 1995 grazing regulations did not violate the TGA.

The “Babbitt years” under President Bill Clinton remained unsettling for Western ranchers. At Babbitt's urging, and citing authority of the 1906 Antiquities Act, Clinton separated millions of acres of the public domain into a dozen national monuments. He promised “traditional uses” would be preserved, but Western ranchers predict the days are numbered for public lands grazing in the monument areas.

Changing tactics

The creation of the national monuments characterize the struggle between local governments, which tend to serve residents by making use of natural resources, and federal officials, who want to isolate those same resources from virtually any use.

With the 2000 election of George W. Bush, Babbitt-era environmentalists found fewer friendly faces in Washington. Among their new tactics is a proposal to allow direct government buyouts of grazing permits on federal lands.

Buyout proponents claim permittees should have the option to retire their grazing permits “for compensation” rather than suffer costly mandates to change their grazing operations. They claim this would allow agency personnel to devote more time to saving species, and that permanently retired allotments could become new refuges for threatened species.

In 2002, the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, a coalition of national environmental groups, sent letters to 25,000 ranchers outlining the $3.3-billion proposal. It would pay $175/animal unit month for retiring leases. For a rancher grazing 300 pairs on federal land for six months, that amounts to a $262,000 payout.

Just say “no”

The proposal has met both acceptance and reluctance among stock growers. Some want to take the money and run. Others fear it will forever alter Western ranching and cripple their communities.

There are several reasons why federal grazing permits should remain intact under the canons of multiple-use:

  • Many of the groups proposing buyout legislation have also long opposed livestock grazing as a viable use of private lands. Who or what will be their next target?

  • Existing law sets a balance for multiple-use of renewable resources on public lands. Even in PLC v. Babbitt, it was ruled federal permits could not be held for conservation purposes.

  • The buyout proposal is flawed because proponents deceptively link all livestock grazing on public lands with environmental degradation.

  • Decades of research show resource improvements can occur much faster under managed grazing when compared to total exclusion.

  • The private/public partnership fostered by federal grazing allows a working Western landscape that stems urban sprawl and sustains a vital link to our heritage.

  • Not all “bought out” ranchers will retire their herds. This will pressure private ranges and pastures, and raise private grazing prices.

  • A series of economic issues have never been adequately addressed; e.g., is there a higher cost to the resource and taxpayers without private stewardship of public lands?

It's been 40 years since the multiple-use concept revolutionized grazing on the public domain. What happens in the next few years, though, will be ultimately more critical to thousands of ranchers' livelihoods.

We can help public lands ranchers, and the underpinnings of our industry, by being sensitive and responsive to their cause.