The Status of Range Reform

by Karl Hess, Jr.

Range reform has been on Washington's environmental agenda ever since the 1992 election. It began with Secretary Bruce Babbitt's commitment to make change on the range the flagship of the Department of the Interior's assault on outmoded and outdated natural resource laws, regulations and policies.

That effort culminated on August 21, 1995, with the enactment of a new set of federal regulations to govern public-land ranching. Most notably, Babbitt's regulatory reforms:

  1. Created broad-based advisory councils to expand public input into land-use decision-making; and
  2. Mandated standards and guidelines by which to monitor and evaluate resource conditions and the impacts of livestock on land, soil, air, water, plants, and wildlife.
To date, advisory councils have been established at state and regional levels. Work on standards and guidelines, however, has been postponed until after March 1, 1996, which is the beginning of the new fiscal grazing year.

Babbitt's range reform regulations have been broadly attacked. Environmentalists are angry because the regulations fail to increase grazing fees, leave grazing subsidies intact, and do nothing to reverse the mounting deficit of the federal grazing program. Ranchers are upset because they fear the regulatory crunch of Babbitt's standards and guidelines. They are also up in arms because Babbitt's regulations do nothing to curb what they believe is the latest threat of the National Environmental Policy Act.

Multiple environmental lawsuits are now pending that could force federal land-managing agencies to perform NEPA-mandated environmental impact statements on a grazing-allotment-by-grazing-allotment basis. Ranchers fear this could shut down the livestock industry on federal lands.

Stockmen's concerns over Babbitt's regulations and the looming threat of NEPA led, in the spring of 1995, to the drafting of Senate Bill S. 852--originally called the Livestock Grazing Act but later renamed, for obvious public relations reasons, the Public Rangelands Management Act of 1995. Sponsored by Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), the bill set forth five major goals:

  1. Elimination of Babbitt's range reform regulations;
  2. Codification of regulations more friendly to the livestock industry;
  3. Exemption of individual grazing allotments from NEPA-mandated EIS's;
  4. Establishment of grazing advisory boards manned exclusively by ranchers; and
  5. Extension of BLM regulations to national forest grazing lands.
At heart a grazing protection bill, S. 852 offered only a token increase in grazing fees--just enough, its supporters hoped, to give the bill a progressive sheen. However, grazing subsidies were left intact and the deepening deficit of the overall grazing program was not seriously tackled.

A groundswell of environmental furor blocked Domenici's bill from mark up in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee--first in August, when Republicans sought a preemptive strike on Babbitt's regulations, and then in October, when a superficially watered-down version of S. 852 re-emerged.

However, between August and October environmental tactics changed in the battle for range reform. The Forest Guardians of Santa Fe, New Mexico, joined with Johanna Wald of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and me (representing the Cato Institute) to put together a market-based range reform package distinct from the command and control regulations of Babbitt and the grazing-protection provisions of the Domenici bill. We drafted three simple principles to guide future change on the range:

Today, taxpayers pay almost $500 million a year to keep the Forest Service and BLM grazing programs afloat.

The three principles of market-based range reform were subsequently issued as a press release by NRDC. Groups agreeing to the principles included:

A good part of the environmental strategy to stop S. 852 has been to build a working coalition between greens and fiscal conservatives. Doing so has been helped by a number of events. In an opinion editorial published first in High Country News (October 2, 1995) and later in the Washington Times (October 13, 1995), Johanna Wald and I called for a marshaling and merging of environmental and libertarian forces to articulate a market alternative to the range reforms of Babbitt and Domenici. Their call for common action echoed the earlier position of the Forest Guardians that "the [market] principles should appeal not only to principled fiscal conservative, but also to environmental organizations frustrated with the lack of improvement in the condition of public lands."

Dave Foreman, in the fall, 1995, issue of Wild Earth, gave additional momentum to market-based range reform by suggesting that "properly-applied libertarianism [the market approach] can strengthen conservation." To this end, he called for buying grazing permits from ranchers as the most practical and fair way to eliminate wilderness grazing--endorsing, in effect, the environmental goal to make rangeland permits marketable to people other than ranchers and usable for things other than growing red meat.

More significantly, the long-term efforts of The Nature Conservancy to buy grazing permits on the open market and the recent attempts by environmental groups in Idaho and New Mexico to bid on state grazing leases lent additional credibility and support to the free market thrust of the green agenda for range reform.

Market ideas are not new to the environmental community. The Environmental Defense Fund pioneered transferable pollution quotas, market tools that have been highly successfully in reducing air pollution and promoting better pollution-control technologies. Environmental groups in California pioneered the use of water markets to conserve water for agriculture, urban dwellers and rural wildlife. And the Nature Conservancy purchased grazing permits in Nevada's Mojave Desert at fair market value to provide adequate and fully protected habitat for the Desert Tortoise.

Moreover, long-standing environmental critique of federal grazing welfare is securely rooted in the free market assumption that production subsidies to ranchers encourage, foster, and facilitate mismanagement and overgrazing of public rangelands. (An in-depth review of the environmental damage caused by subsidies appears in the spring, 1994, issue of Different Drummer, "Reforming the Western Range.")

Ironically, environmental support of market-based reform on federal rangelands has met staunch opposition from some prominent Republicans and leaders of the western livestock industry. Senator Domenici, in a September meeting with the Forest Guardians, assailed environmental efforts at market reform, labeling them veiled attempts to increase federal regulation of public-land ranching. He vowed to oppose such ideas and argued that environmentalists should abandon market approaches. Later, in a meeting with The Wilderness Society, Domenici attacked the Cato Institute and urged environmentalists to abandon their budding coalition with fiscal conservatives and free market libertarians--a coalition that by then had expanded to include such groups as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, The Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, and Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Rancher resistance to market-based range reforms is even more dramatic. The executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers--a vocal supporter of ranchers' rights and the transfer of BLM lands to the states--recently told the Santa Fe magazine, Crosswinds, that market reformers and their market ideas are "pie-in-the-sky" (a phrase long used by the National Cattlemen's Association and the Public Lands Council) and that it is wrong for "the Nature Conservancy to come and buy up grazing permits."

Supporting the cattle growers in the same magazine was an agricultural economist at New Mexico State University and a key advisor to Senator Domenici on grazing fees, who added that markets only work in a perfect society, and that "we don't have a perfect society." Curiously, neither of the two industry spokesmen oppose current laws and regulations that allow the marketing of grazing permits within the much smaller, and legislatively protected community of ranchers.

Environmental efforts to promote market reform of federal rangelands have been extensively reported in the national press and have made modest institutional inroads. Congressional staff and members on the minority side contacted NRDC in early October concerning the drafting of legislative language for the reform principles. NRDC, at the behest of the environmental coalition, declined codification of the principles by a single political party, choosing instead to make them a bipartisan spearhead into creative range reform.

In addition, market-based principles similar to those advanced by the environmental coalition have been circulated to the NCA and the Public Lands Council. According to Robert Nelson, senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, NCA's public-lands leadership is now willing to discuss market reform as a serious option to current regulations and proposed legislation.

In fact, by mid-November, with S. 852 apparently pushed to the side by the federal budget debate and the shadow of Babbitt's range regulations still hanging like the sword of Damocles over rancher and green heads alike, the prospect of direct talks between livestock interests and environmentalists seemed possible. Those prospects dimmed, however, with the reintroduction of a streamlined and better-packaged version of S. 852.

Scheduled for mark up in the Senate Energy Committee by early December and projected for Congressional approval prior to the March 1, the bill remains a livestock protection act. On non-critical issues, such as advisory councils, "son of S. 852" makes minor concessions by expanding membership in grazing advisory boards to include token, non-ranchers. But on the matters that are most critical to ranchers--and most unsettling to environmentalists--S. 852 is basically unchanged.

For example, the bill retains language that would exempt individual grazing allotments from NEPA-mandated EIS's. In addition, the bill makes failure to graze a civil penalty punishable by fine or revocation of the grazing permit. In effect, these provisions--by shutting the door on NEPA, by precluding anyone but ranchers from holding grazing permits, and by restricting membership on grazing advisory boards to mostly ranchers--cut the American public out of the decision-making process on federal rangelands.

In response to Domenici's revival of S. 852, a joint letter opposing the bill was prepared and signed on November 27, 1995, by individuals whose affiliations include NRDC, National Wildlife Federation, The Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, Cato Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Taxpayers for Common Sense, and the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment. Issued by NRDC, the letter urged members of the Senate Energy Committee to oppose the mark up of S. 852. "Notwithstanding the changes that have been made since S. 852 was last before this Committee," the letter observed,

the proposed legislation remains fatally flawed. Like its predecessor, this new bill will sustain a system that rewards the worst ranchers, penalizes the best, and essentially requires overgrazing to continue as a matter of law.

Moreover, it will perpetuate a grazing program that costs taxpayers tens of millions per year in subsidies. Additionally, it will continue to lock out 250 million Americans from acquiring rangeland permits for uses other than raising livestock.

The undersigned believe that it is past time to stop forcing taxpayers to underwrite the activities of the 23,000 businesses and individuals who now hold federal grazing permits and to pay for the resulting environmental damage. We ask you and your Congressional colleagues to develop legislation that reflects the following three principles which represent initial steps to real range reform:

The letter concluded by saying that, "The legislation that will come before you and your colleagues on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on November 30 is inconsistent with every one of these principles of equal opportunity, free markets and environmental protection. Please vote `no' on the legislation."

Today, several scenarios for the future of range reform are possible--though all of them hinge, to a certain degree, on the prospects of Domenici's revised Public Rangelands Management Act of 1995. If the bill is successfully marked up in the Senate Energy Committee--which to date has been its consistent Waterloo--then it must still face series hurdles.

First, Senate Democrats will likely filibuster the bill. Domenici knows this, and has modified S. 852 to win over crucial votes to impose cloture. However, to win over marginal Democrats, Domenici has been forced to add provisions to S. 852 that are certain to anger the livestock industry.

For example, the revised bill would empower federal agencies to revoke a rancher's grazing permit if he or she was found guilty of "failure to comply with Federal laws or regulations relating to protection of air, water, soil and vegetation, fish and wildlife, and other environmental values when exercising the grazing use authorized by the permit or lease." Because of the sweep and generality of this new, compromise language, a Pandora's box would be opened for ranchers. In effect, environmentalists would have a new and robust tool by which to administratively and judicially challenge livestock grazing on federal lands.

For ranchers the provision would nullify the benefits gained by eliminating NEPA-mandated EISs. Agencies would have to perform de facto EISs to either substantiate or refute potential claims of environmental damage caused by grazing. Some ranchers have already suggested that this provision may make Domenici's bill worse than the current regulations established by Bruce Babbitt.

Assuming that the bill survives a Senate vote, some version of it must still be considered by the House and, if passed there, reconciled with the Senate version. Once that happens--and the target date is before March 1--the bill must go to the president for his signature. Clinton, however, has indicated that he will likely veto the Domenici bill as it now stands. And without sufficient votes in Congress to override a presidential veto, S. 852 will die.

Death of the Public Rangelands Management Act raises a second scenario: continuation of Bruce Babbitt's range reform regulations in full force and effect. This is a real possibility given the prospects of a legislative and executive checkmate. However, even if that happens, the pressure for range reform will not end; it will simply mount with time.

Ranchers have made it clear that they will fight Babbitt every inch of the way, raising the specter of a BLM-rancher struggle as fierce as the one that emerged toward the end of the Carter administration and sparked the sagebrush rebellion that helped sweep Reagan and Watt into power. Today such a prospect is even more real and politically disruptive given the present antipathy of the West toward the Interior Department and the ongoing rebellion of western counties against the federal agencies.

For these reasons, neither Domenici's bill nor Babbitt's regulations offer the prospect and possibility for real and lasting range reform. Both lack key political support, both sustain the systems of subsidy and privilege that underlie the system of public-land grazing, and both entail zero-sum solutions. If Domenici's bill succeeds, environmentalists and other concerned public-land users will be effectively cut out of the federal land-use decision-making process. If Babbitt triumphs, environmentalists will remain dissatisfied as ever, and ranchers will more than likely escalate the West's war against the federal government.

Although still a long shot, the market-based reforms proposed by the environmental community are a third and potentially promising scenario. They offer the strongest prospect of a win-win solution for the environment, for taxpayers, for ranchers, and for public-land users in general.

Rangeland health would gain by weaning ranchers of the subsidies that promote and pay for bad grazing practices. Fewer subsidies and more individual responsibility would drive the worst of ranchers out of business and secure the livelihood and future of the very best of ranchers.

In addition, marketable grazing permits would open up the public lands to stewards with different ideas on how to use federal ranges and how best to manage them. More groups like the Nature Conservancy would be able and willing to buy permits on the open market and to exercise options other than growing red meat from public grass and scarce water.

Taxpayers would also gain. The market principles offered by environmentalists and fiscal conservatives would be a first step in trimming the galloping deficit of the federal grazing program. This time, however, deficit-cutting would be done by more politically-viable means.

In the past environmentalists have sought to balance the grazing budget by raising grazing fees. This has not worked; ranchers have opposed it vigorously and successfully over the years. They have fought it for the simple reason that higher fees reduce the market value (that is, to other ranchers) of their grazing permits. A different tack--one that is consistent with the green market initiative--is to simply cut the costs of the grazing program itself--something which ranchers have long advocated in the past. To do this, subsidies must be cut and the costs of managing federal lands shifted from the government to the actual beneficiaries of private grazing on public lands: ranchers.

Stockmen would win too. By agreeing to open up the system of rangeland permits to all Americans and by accepting a subsidy-free grazing program, they will enjoy greater security and tenure in their permits. They will be at last freed from the harsh charge of special privilege. They will witness the value of their grazing permits rise--not fall as they have for the past ten years--as more and more Americans enter the market place for rangeland permits. Indeed, as more non-ranchers acquire permits, demands for congressional elimination of federal grazing will diminish.

Finally, public-land users other than ranchers will benefit. Environmentalists, for example, will have at hand a tool that is more effective and much swifter that either regulation or court decree in changing the grazing status of federal rangelands: they can simply buy out grazing permits on environmentally sensitive lands. This may seem prohibitively expensive, but in fact it isn't. Already, two to three years of the combined grazing deficits of the BLM and the Forest Service are equal to the full market value of all public-land grazing permits.

Further, national and local environmental organizations are already working to buy grazing permits and in some cases have succeeded in doing so despite unfriendly laws and regulations. If taxpayers could use the money poured into sustaining below-cost grazing to buy out bad ranchers and if environmental groups were given equal standing with stockmen to buy grazing permits on lands of their choice, then much of the historic animosity that has pitted greens against stockmen would dissolve in a market frenzy of win-win negotiations.

But the brightest side to the rise of market reform on the western range is not the peaceful reduction of grazing or the voluntary resolution of competing land uses: it is, instead, the triumph of a new environmental paradigm that holds promise for resolving environmental issues beyond the arena of cows and grass. Already, groups such as NRDC and the Cato Institute are engaging in joint discussions to determine how market solutions might be used in other environmental arenas, such as national forests and endangered species. For the first time since Earth Day 1970, greens and libertarians/conservatives are sitting down at the same table to talk about how markets might protect our natural heritage and how they might do so in a fashion that benefits all Americans.

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