Public Lands Grazing Faces Uncertain Future

Published February 1, 2003

Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West
by George Wuerthner and Mollie Matteson (eds.)
Foundation for Deep Ecology, August 2002
368 pages cloth

Why would anyone want a coffee-table book filled with photos of environmentally degraded landscapes? That was a question many people asked in 1995 when the Sierra Club published Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry, a giant book of ugly color photos of clearcut forests. The Club’s goal, however, was less to sell books than to give them away to members of Congress and other decision-makers in support of the environmental campaign to end timber cutting on federal lands.

At the time Clearcut was published, federal timber sales had already declined by some 80 percent from their pre-1990 levels. They haven’t fallen much further since then, suggesting the book had little impact on the politics of public lands.

Nevertheless, Island Press has now published two more books of the same sort: Welfare Ranching (for the Foundation for Deep Ecology) and Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture. While the latter is likely to have little impact on agriculture, Welfare Ranching could play a major role in public land politics in the next few years. Of the initial press run of 10,000 books, the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign and its coalition members immediately gave away 7,000 to legislators, reporters, and other opinion leaders.

Light Reading, this Isn’t

At 12 inches by 13.5 inches and weighing more than five pounds, Welfare Ranching is not suitable for a little light reading. Several of the book’s 41 chapters were written by people I would call “radical environmentalists,” meaning they are motivated more by emotion than rational thought. But many of the contributors are well-respected biologists, economists, and other scientists.

Unlike Fatal Harvest, which deals with private land management, Welfare Ranching deals exclusively with grazing of privately owned cattle, sheep, and other livestock on publicly owned lands. The book points out that about 22,000 ranches have permits to graze on 260 million acres of federal land. While those 260 million acres represent more than 10 percent of the land area of the entire U.S., they provide only 2 percent of all feed consumed by U.S. cattle and other livestock. Many permittees are small family-owned ranches, but some are large spreads operated by wealthy individuals or corporations. Billionaire J.R. Simplot, for example, has permits on 2 million acres of public land in Idaho.

The photos and articles in the book purport to show public land grazing is degrading the landscape. The editors admit most of the degradation took place a century ago, when grazing was unregulated and cattle and sheep herders often competed for the same land, giving each an incentive to overgraze to keep the other out. The book contends degradation continues today, while ranchers insist they graze at such low levels now that the land is recovering.

One problem Wuerthner, the book’s main photographer, faced is that grazed landscapes rarely look as ugly as recently harvested clearcuts. The book includes many pages of photos instructing the reader on how to see the impacts of grazing. One photo “shows what looks like a nice trout stream,” Wuerthner admits. However, “the stream has been degraded by a hundred years of livestock use.” Is the degradation continuing, or is the land recovering despite continuing lower levels of use? Photos taken at one point in time cannot prove the case one way or the other.

That issue is critical because the goal of the book’s supporters is to completely end livestock grazing on public lands. To admit grazing is destructive when overdone but not at low levels, or that it might be destructive to some landscapes but not others, would undermine this goal.

Doesn’t Make the Case

Nineteen of the book’s 41 chapters cover the ecological consequences of livestock grazing, and many of them are written by Ph.D. ecologists and biologists. While they make a convincing argument that grazing can be harmful and grazing institutions need reform, they don’t prove grazing always is bad or that its benefits never outweigh the costs. Many of the chapters suggest changes in federal policies short of completely ending grazing could solve most grazing problems.

Despite its subtitle, the book does not support its claim that grazing is heavily subsidized. The only economic analysis in the book focuses on grazing’s minimal contribution to western economies. Just because an enterprise is small doesn’t mean we can or should jettison it without weighing its benefits and costs.

In a recent report titled Assessing the Full Cost of the Federal Grazing Program, economists working for the Center for Biological Diversity (which I would call a radical environmental group) estimate “the full cost of the federal grazing program to the U.S. Treasury is likely to approximate $500 million annually.”

Ranchers are quick to deny this. In fact, nearly all public land users deny they get any subsidies for their use. While they all agree everyone else is subsidized, they believe they themselves shouldn’t have to pay any more for their use.

Subsidies Add Up

With the exception of oil and gas producers, nearly all public land users are subsidized. Some users (such as timber cutters) pay fees at market rates but below the cost to the federal government of producing the good. Others (such as some recreationists) pay fees that cover the costs to the government, yet the fees are below market rates. The fees paid by most public land ranchers are both below cost and below market rates.

The fee for grazing on most federal lands is about $1.50 per animal unit month (the amount of feed consumed by a cow in a month). The same ranchers often pay $10 or more to graze on state or private lands. Ranchers argue their costs are higher on federal lands, but when they sublease their grazing permits to other ranchers (which some are allowed to do), they usually charge rates comparable to those charged for grazing state lands.

If the federal government spends $500 million supporting public grazing, then even a fee of $10 wouldn’t cover costs. Federal lands support less than 16.5 million animal unit months of grazing a year, which would put the cost per month at about $30.

Of course, a large chunk of that $500 million a year supports the U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior bureaucracies more than it supports ranchers. In fact, the biggest subsidies of all go to the bureaucracies, not to any of the outside interest groups. But few interest groups will say that because, rather than end subsidies, they hope to turn them in their own direction. Any reform that fails to streamline the bureaucracies will not save taxpayers money.

What to Do?

In addition to leaving out any detailed discussion of subsidies, Welfare Ranching fails to detail any proposal for what to do about grazing. But one grazing opponent, the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, has a plan it says relies on incentives rather than regulation.

Its program is simply to buy out the ranchers. The group estimates the average capital value of a public land animal unit month, as recognized in financial and real estate markets, is about $40. So it proposes to give each rancher more than four times this amount, $175 per animal unit month, to retire their permits and find alternate sources of feed. Buying all 16.5 million animal unit months would cost about $2.9 billion.

Of course, the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign doesn’t propose to raise the money itself. Instead, it wants the federal government to pay off the ranchers. The savings to taxpayers of ending grazing subsidies, the group says, would be three to four times the cost of buying out the permits.

In 1999, another proposal was put forth by a consensus group of ranchers and environmentalists after meetings facilitated by Karl Hess, Jr. They agreed to let environmental groups use their own funds to buy grazing permits from ranchers at market value. This would force environmentalists to focus on the most serious problems and allow some grazing to continue where it does little harm. (The detailed proposal can be read at

This is happening on a small scale, but institutional rules work against it. For example, no one is allowed to buy a permit unless they own land nearby, and those who have permits are required to graze or risk losing the permits to some other landowner. Changing these two rules (as proposed by Hess’s consensus group) would allow resolution of the grazing issue through the market rather than through politics.

The National Public Lands Grazing Campaign’s proposal has the advantage of being comparatively simple. Simpler still would be to simply end, or significantly reduce, public land grazing. A rancher’s grazing rights can be terminated when the applicable permit expires (typically every 10 years). By allowing ranchers’ permits to expire without renewing them, no one would have to buy the ranchers out.

With a Republican Congress and the placement of Western rural members of Congress on key public lands committees, one might expect none of these proposals to happen soon. But the 80 percent decline in national forest timber sales between 1990 and 1995 took place administratively and despite the resistance of many powerful members of Congress. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management officials could just as easily decide to phase out public land grazing on a case-by-case basis.

Rather than simply digging in, Western ranchers and their supporters should be looking for solutions that will allow ranches to survive a dramatic reduction in public land grazing. Whatever happens to livestock grazing, the smart ranchers today are thinking about recreation, game ranching, and other sources of income to supplement or replace the very marginal business of livestock production.

Randal O’Toole ([email protected]) is senior economist for the Thoreau Institute ( and author of Reforming the Forest Service, available for $25.00 through Point your Web browser to

For more information …

George Wuerthner and Mollie Matteson’s Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West is available for $31.50 through Point your Web browser to