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Here’s Why Ranchers Probably Won’t Like the Idea of States Seizing Our Federal Public Lands

The Cliven Bundy debacle shed light the growing fringe of legislators in eight Western states and across the country demanding that the federal government turn public lands over to the states and private owners.

Proponents of states “taking back” public lands, however, apparently haven’t thought through who stands to lose from this policy—beginning with ranchers.  There are approximately 16,000 ranchers who graze their livestock on 155 million acres federal public lands, and they pay far less in fees for that privilege than if they were to graze their livestock on state or private lands.

Currently, the fee for grazing on federal public lands is $1.35 per animal unit month (AUM)—the legal floor for grazing fees set by a 1986 executive order. One AUM is equivalent to the amount of food a cow and a calf, one horse, or five sheep or goats eat in a month.  To underscore how low this is, and for historical reference, the grazing fee was $1.23 per AUM in 1966.

As seen in the chart below, grazing fees on state trust lands across the American West are all at least twice as high as those of the federal government, and in cases like Colorado, up to eight times as high.  (Nevada does not have a grazing fee for its state trust lands because it sold nearly all of them off, while California tiers its grazing fees to those of adjacent counties).

State trust grazing fees

Sources:  Arizona, New Mexico, Utah (conversation with State of Utah School and Institutional Trust Administration), Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon (*2012 data), Washington (conversation with Washington State Office of Natural Resources), Montana, Colorado

Even more surprising is the fact that grazing fees on private lands in Western states are between 7-16 times higher than what the federal government charges, as seen in the below data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

 Private lands grazing fees by state

Source:  National Agricultural Statistics Service

Should “Bundy’s Buddies” succeed in their quixotic quest to seize federal public lands and turn them over to the states or private landowners, ranchers would presumably be charged significantly more to graze their livestock on them.

This could prove to be a significant sticking point for national, state, and county elected officials who encourage efforts to “transfer” public lands to the states or to have them privatized.  Not to mention the fact that it could be a serious threat to ranch businesses in much of the American West.  As libertarian writer Terry Anderson of the Property and Environment Research Center opined:  “Are ranchers ready to have less taxpayer money spent on their grazing lands and to pay more for their permits?”

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