Eating the land away

These two advocates of the political left and right can agree on one thing: why are they cutting off welfare moms when they should be cutting off welfare cows.

by Karl Hess, Jr. and Johanna WaId
e are both veterans of America's longest war: the war over the public lands of the West. For the past quarter century - in a conflict that dates back to the Civil War - we have written and spoken about livestock grazing on federal lands and fought over how those lands should be governed. We have, in the process, pitted ourselves and our affiliations - the fiscally and politically conservative Cato Institute and the environmentalist NRDC - against one another.
But the range policy fence that has divided us is toppling, thanks to interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and the 104th Congress. While we and the organizations we represent disagree on many issues, our common ground starts with the federal lands of the West. They are awe-inspiring, containing many of the country's most treasured landscapes. They are ecologically rich, stretching from alpine meadows to desert basins. They are culturally laden, vital to our history and our American identity.
Western public lands are important for many things, but thanks to the "wisdom" of federal policy, the use to which they are put favors the one thing Americans want least from them: subsidized cows. Almost 200 million acres of federal grass and forest are devoted to producing less than 3.5 percent of the nation's beef. Take away those acres and the cost of a steak would not increase by a penny. And having fewer cows would lessen the current over-supply of cattle and slow the plunge in beef prices.
We are not arguing for a purge of livestock and stock growers from all federal ranges. Public-land ranchers are largely decent and caring people whose love of the land is real.
What we object to are the laws and policies that have made cattle and sheep the political business of the West and that are the source of degradation of millions of acres of public lands. We think it perverse that so-called range reforms - the grazing regulations set by Babbitt in August and the Public Rangeland Management Act proposed in the Senate by Pete Domenici (R-NM) - should erect fences around grazing to protect ranchers from economic and environmental responsibility.
Babbitt's regulations ignore the fundamental question: "Is livestock grazing what the public wants?" Rather, Babbitt assumes it is, and then mandates that taxpayers continue to pay for it.
The Public Rangeland Management Act is far worse for the environment. Like the regulations, it would keep the subsidies that sustain public-land ranching at current levels. But it would also erect even higher fences to protect the cowboy monopoly on federal lands. Ranchers who wanted to graze their lands conservatively, or not at all, would face the loss of their federal permits. Ranchers with large grazing permits would win; bankers with collateral interests in grazing permits would win; taxpayers would lose.
We believe there is another strategy that better fits the present needs of the nation and represents genuine range reform.
First, Congress should put public land grazing on a market footing: ranchers, not taxpayers, should pay for using federal grass. It should zero a range-budget deficit that amounts to almost $500 million per year on BLM and Forest Service lands (when the costs of planning, resource mitigation, and USDA range subsidies are added to the official $70 million grazing shortfall).
Raising grazing fees will not cut the red ink, though; costs must be trimmed by, for instance, ending the practice of sending half of grazing-fee revenue back to the ranchers. Further, $100 to 200 million can be sliced from the grazing deficit by ending USDA subsidies - services like brush control, animal damage control, and emergency feed.
Second, Congress should bust the cowboy trust on federal lands. All Americans should be free to acquire permits to federal grass and to use the lands to enhance wildlife, stabilize soils, protect endangered species, improve riparian areas - or, if they prefer, raise red meat. Concerned environmentalists would have less cause to push for a political end to grazing on ecologically fragile public lands; for the first time, they will have market options.
Third, Congress should authorize the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture to engage in an array of range reform experiments that might better protect public lands -such as sustainable land use tailored to the Western rural economy; investing public-land user fees in biological diversity trust funds; and creating non-fee incentives for better land stewardship and effective citizen involvement.
This range reform package is not a panacea. It does, however, reflect the value of open discourse among different points of view - a discourse that Babbitt's regulations steer away from, and that the Public Rangeland Management Act precludes altogether. Our package will not only tear down the fences that divide organizations like ours, but also those that divide East from West and the new West from the old.

Karl Hess, Jr. is a senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute. Johanna Wald is director of the Land Program at NRDC. Members of the Natural Resources Defense Council subscribe to the Amicus Journal through their dues. Contact NRDC, 6310 San Vicente Blvd. Ste 250, Los Angeles CA 90048 (213)934-6900.