Lawmaker proposing buyout program for federal grazing permits - Livestock group views plan as move to eliminate all cattle grazing on public lands

By CHUCK MUELLER, Staff Writer
San Bernardino County Sun


Proposed legislation to compensate ranchers who voluntarily give up federal grazing permits has drawn fire from a state livestock group, which views the plan as a move to eliminate all cattle grazing on public lands.

The proposal, drawn up by a coalition of conservation groups called the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, calls for creating a program that would pay ranchers who choose to relinquish federal grazing leases.

'Our members are opposed to any legislation stemming from this campaign,' said Ben Higgins, executive vice-president of the California Cattlemen's Association. "It's nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt by radical environmental groups to permanently retire all grazing on public lands.'

Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., vice-chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives budget committee, plans to introduce legislation in the spring to create a buyout program, his chief of staff, Betsy Hawkings, said Wednesday.

The goal is to set a compensation level that will be high enough to be a success with ranchers,' she said. "It's estimated it would cost taxpayers about $3.3 billion annually to eliminate grazing on public lands.'

The buyout program would pay ranchers with federal grazing permits about four times market value to relinquish permits, said Keith Raether, spokesman for the for the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign.

Under the plan, ranchers would get $175 for each "animal unit month' on their allotment, averaged over the past 10 years, he said. A rancher who grazes 300 cattle and calves on federal lands for five months would receive $262,000.

There are about 27,000 ranchers with public land grazing permits, mainly in the West. California has about 1,000, Higgins said.

Shays is expected to ask the congressional General Accounting Office to study current costs to maintain public land for grazing, including costs of fences and water lines, wells and tanks.

"We need that information to quantify potential benefits of a buyout program,' Hawkings said.

Shays also wants to pursue a pilot program to determine the merits of going forward with a more comprehensive proposal, she said.

A policy statement approved by members of the California Cattlemen's Association opposes all portion' of the grazing campaign, Higgins said. "Furthermore, any legislation enacting a permit buyout program stands little chance in the 108th Congress,' he said.

"Legislators are firmly opposed to this campaign (and) the Bush administration is very supportive of grazing on public lands.'

According to Raether, the proposal has been endorsed by 120 conservation organizations, including the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity.

"This plan helps ranchers, saves taxpayer money and diminishes decades of environmental degradation caused by livestock grazing on public lands,' said Sierra Club President Jennifer Ferenstein.

The proposal also is endorsed by the Idyllwild-based Center for Biological Diversity, which went to federal court in 2000 with the Sierra Club and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility to halt livestock grazing on some public lands in the Mojave Desert. Their lawsuit focused on 500,000 acres of land that is critical habitat for the desert tortoise.

"Cattle grazing is harmful to the desert environment,' said Daniel Patterson, an ecologist with the center. "The federal court upheld our concerns by restricting livestock grazing during the tortoises' spring and fall foraging season.'

Michael Connor, executive director of the Riverside-based Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee, said livestock grazing is an unacceptable use of public land containing the tortoise, a threatened species within the Endangered Species Act.

For years, ranchers have faced ongoing drought, growing environmental pressures and competition for use of public lands.

"This is a step that would allow struggling ranchers a chance to get out of public lands grazing without serious economic consequences,' said Wayne Hoskisson, chairman of the Sierra Club's national grazing committee. "Congress should act on this unique opportunity to create such balanced legislation.'

The National Public Lands Grazing Campaign is made up of the American Lands Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, Committee for the High Desert, Forest Guardians, Oregon Natural Desert Association and Western Watersheds Project.


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