Grazing on Public Lands: Here to Stay or Gone Forever? Broken Promises, Empty Words, Hiding in the Cracks of Laws

Second In A Series, By Toni Thayer

Author’s Note: The following may seem like a legal quagmire of jumbled jargon, but it is highly significant to understanding the integral part it all plays in the current scenario of eliminating grazing on public lands:

The ranchers say they’ve experienced nothing but broken promises, empty words, and a government that hides in the cracks of laws. Have promises been made and broken?

Have messages contained empty words with little meaning? What do the laws say about the new BLM procedures and processes for stopping grazing on the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (GSENM)?

When President Bill Clinton designated the GSENM on Sep. 18, 1996, his Presidential Proclamation 6920 promised that it did not change existing grazing or levels of grazing. “Nothing in this proclamation shall be deemed to affect existing permits or leases for, or levels of livestock grazing on Federal lands within the monument.”

The Flagstaff, Ariz., environmental group that spearheaded the GSENM’s designation, the Grand Canyon Trust affirms this same promise in their September 1996 publication, the Colorado Plateau Advocate, “Other existing uses of these public lands are not affected by the proclamation, including hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, and livestock grazing.”

Technically, these promises have not been broken, because Clinton’s proclamation, in and of itself, has not caused grazing to cease. However, this promise is not contained in the next part of the proclamation, “existing grazing uses shall continue to be governed by applicable laws and regulations other than this proclamation.” It’s these applicable regulations that have been changed to incorporate provisions for stopping grazing and retirement of permits.

Originally, Congress established grazing on public lands through the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 (Taylor Act), to “promote the highest use” of the lands. Their goals were to stop injury to the land from overgrazing and soil deterioration; to provide for the land’s use, improvement and development; and to stabilize the livestock industry dependent on the public range.

Through the Taylor Act, Congress specified that preference for grazing permits be given to those in or near a grazing district and to landowners engaged in the livestock business, occupants or settlers, or owners of water or water rights.

Historically, Federal rules have given “preference” to livestock owners who have “base property” or water rights sufficient to support their herds. The Taylor Act also specified that existing permit holders’ grazing privileges must be “safeguarded”.

In 1976, Congress enacted another law, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) that instructed the Department of Interior to develop “land use plans” based on “multiple use” and “sustained yield”. In other words, the plans had to provide for various uses (multiple use--range, timber, recreation, minerals, watershed, fish and wildlife, natural, scenic, scientific, and historical) and at the same time maintain the output of renewable resources to last forever (sustained yield).

FLPMA strengthened the Secretary of Interior’s authority to add or remove rangelands and to change the designated use through land use planning. It also stipulated that existing grazing permittees would keep “first priority” for renewal as long as the land use plan allocated domestic livestock grazing lands. If there were fluctuations in quantity or quality of forage and land planning revealed a need for changes, the Secretary could cancel, suspend or modify grazing permits and/or the amount of acreage available for grazing.

In 1995, then Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt changed the wording of FLPMA regulations to allow grazing permits for conservation use and permits to those “not in a livestock business”. The revisions replaced “preference” with “a priority position” tied to base property or water rights owned or controlled by the permittee. Regulations were also amended to give full title and ownership of all permanent rangeland improvements to the United States government.

On May 15, 2000, in Public Lands Council v. Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Interior, the U.S. Supreme Court (the Court) upheld several of Secretary Babbitt’s regulation amendments because, in the Court’s determination, the revisions only clarified terminology and would not jeopardize the security of a permit as required by Congressional mandate in the Taylor Act. The Court also upheld a previous Appeals Court ruling that Babbitt’s new conservation permits were unlawful.

The Court dismissed arguments that Babbitt’s regulations would allow “a scheme to end livestock grazing on the public lands” or would allow individuals to “obtain a permit for what amounts to a conservation purpose and then effectively mothball the permit”. They stated the “regulations specify that regular grazing permits will be issued for livestock grazing, or suspended use”.

The Court’s interpretation was that grazing is “based upon the amount of forage available for livestock grazing as established in the land use plan.” If there are changing range conditions, the Secretary could place the lands in a “suspended use”. A permittee could apply for temporary “nonuse” which must be renewed annually and could be utilized for no more than three consecutive years. The nonuse does not remove the land from grazing, because it may be allocated to others for forage.

Meanwhile, three years later, it appears that Secretary Babbitt’s amendments have established procedures whereby grazing permits are shelved for conservation purposes.

As reported in the first article of this series, the current land use changes did not arise from the need to rest or rehabilitate specific allotments, but rather, arbitrarily, as permittees came forward to sell a grazing permit based on their individual financial needs or their desire to end grazing on public lands.

The recently signed Decision Records by Utah State BLM Director Sally Wisely have erroneously placed the retired grazing permits into a “nonuse” category. In fact, BLM has placed the entire GSENM on a nonuse status due to drought conditions. It seems there is confusion about suspended use and nonuse.

There is also an interesting connection in three areas with Bruce Babbitt. As the Secretary of Interior, he changed Federal regulations to stop grazing on public lands, and was at one time a founder of the Grand Canyon Trust, the group that secures private donors to buyout the grazing permittees, and was a family member of the Babbitt Ranch that also holds grazing permits for public lands in Arizona.

As a charitable nonprofit, the Grand Canyon Trust does not have to disclose their private donors’ identities. Bill Hedden, the Trust’s Utah Conservation Director, declined to comment when asked for their names in a recent telephone interview.

It’s really anyone’s guess who these private donors might be, but they are rapidly changing Federal grazing procedures covertly, behind the skirts of the Grand Canyon Trust and the veil of environmentalism.

Our coverage continues next week as we look deeper into the varying factors of this grazing permit process.

Article online at:


Toni Thayer

P O Box 131 435-826-4663

Escalante, UT 84726

Permission to reprint is granted with attribution to:

Toni Thayer: or email

Garfield County News: 435-679-8730 or email


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