Controversial BLM Grazing Program : Ranchers Turn a Profit by Subletting U.S. Land
Like a lot of western ranchers, Stan Davidson needs public grazing lands to survive. He owns a small ranch, but needs additional pasture in the spring and summer. Suitable land not owned by the government is too expensive to buy.
Unlike a lot of western ranchers, Davidson has to pay fair-market value for the public grazing lands he uses--and he pays it to his competitors, who have exclusive government permits to graze those lands.
The permittees pay the Bureau of Land Management $1.86 a month for each cow allowed to graze the vast expanse of BLM-managed public land. Then they charge Davidson and others like him from $8 to $12 per month per cow. And they pocket the difference.
What they do is illegal. But since they have the permits, Davidson and many other small ranchers must pay, federal appraisers have found. Some pay in cash while others pay with livestock. Often, payments are concealed by arrangements that defy outsiders, including the BLM, to uncover and prove.
Few of the ranchers who sublease public lands are willing to talk about it. Davidson spoke only as long as his actual name and state were not used. He and others said they fear ostracism by other cattlemen, and worry that if they are known to speak out they could find no place to graze their herds next year.
The reason he and others are so reluctant to talk is that subleasing public grazing permits for private profit--a practice that the BLM and cattlemen’s groups say does not exist--illustrates what conservationists and other critics assert is wrong with the Bureau of Land Management’s grazing program.
The trouble, they say, is that the grazing fee set by Congress and extended by presidential fiat is scandalously low. Not only does this fail to generate revenue to cut the federal deficit, it fails even to produce enough revenue to cover the cost of running the grazing program itself.
Damage to Land
At the same time, critics argue, the fee is so low that it becomes economic to run cattle on sparsely vegetated lands, sometimes denuding them and turning them into desert, other times eradicating native grasses and leaving behind only unpalatable sagebrush.
Such problems are especially troubling, they say, because grazing occurs on more of the bureau’s vast store of public land than any other single activity. Cows graze more than 170 million of the 272 million acres of BLM-managed land, an area larger than California and Nevada combined.
“Those impacts on wildlife and habitat are not worth the hamburger,” said Larry LaPre of the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society, noting the fact that only 2% of all domestic cattle rely on public range--fewer than the number of cattle grazed on private pasture in Florida alone.
Ranchers counter that BLM’s fees are fair as they are, for several reasons. For example, public lands are by definition open to the public, increasing the danger of rustling. Ranchers using public lands also must install and maintain their own fences and sometimes roads, they add.
Several ranchers also applauded the BLM for several recent wildlife-enhancement projects, such as the reintroduction of bighorn sheep in some parts of Montana and the construction of waterfowl nesting habitats in Idaho.
However, a number of BLM workers privately concede that subleasing, common or not, does indicate that the grazing fee is too low and that low fees encourage overgrazing that threatens thousands of acres each year.
Attempts to raise the federal grazing fee--or to enact other reforms, such as trimming grazing allotments to reduce overgrazing--have met with ferocious opposition in Congress and, recently, the White House.
For example, after the BLM and the Forest Service jointly pursued an exhaustive 1985 study of more than 47,000 individual grazing leases throughout the West--the study that documented more than 1,000 cases of illegal sublets--an effort was launched in Congress to raise the grazing fee.
That effort was quashed by a 1986 executive order, signed by then-President Ronald Reagan, continuing the fee at $1.35 per “animal unit month,” or AUM. This is the amount of vegetation an average cow consumes in a month, roughly about 800 pounds of forage.
Subsequent analysis of the raw government data by Colorado State University agronomists C. Kerry Gee and Albert G. Madsen led them to conclude that bureau grazing privileges were being subleased for an average of $7.76 per AUM in the early 1980s.
Therefore, a rancher with federal leases permitting him to graze 2,000 head of cattle each month on BLM-managed land could have realized more than $10,000 a month by simply subleasing the privileges on the black market.
Despite the conclusions of the report it co-sponsored, BLM officials flatly deny that subleasing occurs, at least not for profit. Rex Clary, who runs the BLM’s district in the high desert rangeland around Susanville, Calif., said that any such profit would be seized by the government if the bureau knew about it.
He and others noted that the documents used to prepare the 1985 audit--and which allegedly proved rampant subleasing--were shredded in 1986 to satisfy a promise of confidentiality made to ranchers participating in the study.
Confidentiality was promised by the staff researchers, and bureau officials said that without the papers it is difficult to locate ranchers who illegally sublet their federal grazing rights.
Individual BLM staff members, however, say that little effort is made to uncover illegal sublets because they believe it would attract political pressures from the influential livestock industry.
By retracing some of the steps of the BLM and Forest Service appraisers who researched the 1985 study, The Times was able to confirm several subleases and learn anecdotally of others. But because of the controversy over the activity, participants discussed the practice only if promised anonymity.
Generally, public grazing privileges for which BLM charges less than $2 per AUM can be subleased by private permittees for whatever the market will bear, from $6 an AUM for poor-quality land to $10, $11 or even $12 an AUM.
In one extreme case, a rancher along the Idaho-Oregon border reportedly paid more than $26 an AUM--almost 20 times the government rate--to graze cattle on a parcel that was 97% public land. Thus, grazing privileges for which the permit-holder of record was charged only $891 were costing the evidently desperate cattleman $18,000. The arrangement lasted for three years.
Sometimes, permittees subleased their grazing privileges to help a neighbor in trouble or to give a head start to a young relative unable to pay the inflated land prices that dog ranchers in many parts of the West. Even in such cases of generosity, however, the fee charged by lessors has hovered around $6 per AUM, regardless of whether the public lands portion of the pasture is 20% or 77%.
Subleased land is not always wholly public land. Subleases have ranged from 100% public land in northern Montana to about 20% public land in north-central Oregon. Often, sublessees do not know that part of the land for which they pay $8 to $12 an AUM costs the lessor only $1.86 an AUM--the official BLM fee.
Just as often, they do not care.
“As high as the interest rates are, it (subleasing) is still cheaper than trying to buy something,” said rancher Lloyd Jones of Hinsdale, Mont. He was quick to add that he owns his own land now and no longer leases any pasture--public or private--for the 250 head of cattle he runs with his son.
“People who are doing this (subleasing) are probably maintaining the fence and other things people don’t think about,” speculated John (Pat) Peterson of Castleford, Ida. He said he leases lands directly from the state and BLM and is not involved in subleasing.
"(Subleasing) is a little more expensive,” Peterson said, “but (lessors) assume some of the responsibilities that the BLM doesn’t do . . . like providing water and maintaining roads.”
Critics, however, contend that BLM lands leased at $1.86 an AUM often offer the same features as adjacent private land that leases for four to six times that fee. Even where private and public lands are “checkerboarded” in a pattern of alternating “sections,” or square miles, the price disparity persists.
And the cost to taxpayers, they add, is substantial.
Rep. George (Buddy) Darden (D-Ga.) said the BLM and Forest Service collected a total of $26 million from grazing in 1984, while the two agencies’ grazing programs cost $73 million to run. Taxes made up the difference.
In 1987, the latest year for which statistics have been published, BLM said it collected $14.3 million in grazing leases, licenses and permits. If the fee had been equal to the average amount reportedly charged by sublessors, the BLM would have collected $87.2 million--a sixfold increase.
BLM, which recently raised its grazing fee to $1.86 per AUM, sets that cost with a complicated formula that considers factors ranging from 1966 production costs to 1989 supermarket prices.
California, on the other hand, determines fees for its grazing program by using the same fees sought by nearby private pasture owners. Its fees range from $6 to $10 per AUM.
Gee and Madsen reported that government statisticians estimated the private lease rate at $10.32 per AUM in 1983.
Despite this, few expect the system to change.
“I don’t think, in the final analysis, Congress has the guts to raise the fees or to radically restructure the (grazing) system,” said Gerald Hillier, manager of BLM’s California Desert District.
Darden has introduced legislation to raise the grazing fee by rewriting the federal fee-setting formula. The bill, however, has run into fierce opposition from several western politicians, including Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) and three Idaho Republicans, Sens. James A. McClure and Steve Symms and Rep. Larry E. Craig.
Some ranchers are not satisfied with simply blocking attempts to hike fees and have been looking around Washington for a member of Congress willing to sponsor a particularly aggressive piece of legislation.
The proposed bill, called the National Rangeland Grazing System Act, would, among other things, establish designated grazing zones that would essentially allow such public lands to be treated as the private property of ranchers.
For example, one section of the draft bill states that grazing would be the “dominant use” for federal rangelands, and that the government could protect wildlife and otherwise manage the public’s property only “with the advice and approval” of the individual leasing the water and grazing rights.
The bill also would make it a felony punishable by 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine for BLM workers to “present the private grazing permittee in a false light as a poor or incompetent grazer” by falsifying range conditions.
Rose Strickland of the Sierra Club said that such penalties are excessively harsh and would serve to further intimidate BLM range conservation specialists from ever challenging grazing practices on public lands.
Intimidation already is a frequent concern of many in the BLM, according to interviews with the employees themselves and congressional investigations into the problem.
An especially egregious example was reported recently by General Accounting Office investigators. It involved a BLM employee who stopped a certain rancher in the process of illegally cutting down trees on an environmentally sensitive piece of BLM property.
The rancher complained about the incident to several elected officials, who pressured BLM to relent. Swiftly, the BLM employee who had stopped the rancher was ordered by his boss not only to apologize to that trespassing rancher, but also to personally deliver the illegally cut wood to the rancher’s house.
“BLM is not managing (ranchers),” the GAO concluded. “Rather, (ranchers) are managing BLM.”
All but a few of the dozens of BLM employees interviewed by The Times spoke candidly only with the assurance that their names would not be used.
“I don’t want to become the next Bob Buffington,” said one, referring to a former Idaho state director and 26-year BLM worker who had been targeted for demotion by BLM Director Robert F. Burford--and later ushered out of BLM completely--after speaking out against overgrazing and in support of a wilderness study program.
Meanwhile, critics say Congress is not the only source of political heat on the bureau. They say BLM’s grazing management policies often are influenced by political appointees within the upper management of the bureau itself.
Often used as an example of this is the problem of overgrazing by livestock that eat vegetation into extinction in some areas. The President’s own Council on Environmental Quality has called overgrazing a leading cause of the growing amount of western rangeland turning to desert.
Hillier, manager of BLM’s California Desert District, said BLM policy-makers blocked efforts to cut livestock numbers or otherwise adjust grazing practices until after years of range-monitoring data was collected. BLM leaders then cut the range-monitoring budget, forcing a reduction in the range-management staff and effectively freezing in place destructive grazing practices.
Congress traditionally relies on home-state lawmakers to set the agenda for issues of regional interest. This leaves BLM in the domain of lawmakers elected in rural western constituencies where cattlemen and miners usually are among the wealthiest, most influential and politically active citizens.
Even those that aren’t directly linked to the livestock industry realize to a certainty how critically important federal grazing lands are to a great many of their constituents.
Over the years, miners and livestock operators grew dependent on the public lands. Many western ranches, for example, have little summer or winter pasture of their own; their real value, and the income of their owners, depend largely on the right to graze nearby public lands.
In many cases, the right to graze public land, a right contained usually in 10-year leases but often handed down from one generation to another, is viewed as such a valuable and tangible real asset that banks will accept it to secure a loan.
The product of all these questionable influences on BLM’s management policy is serious deterioration of public lands.
BLM estimates that 58% of its millions of acres of range is in fair or poor condition--that is, more than half of its native vegetation has been stripped by grazing livestock.