Buyout plan divides ranchers across West

Selling grazing rights would help some. Others see a cultural erosion.

From his ranch near Keota, Colo. (pop. 4), Mike Shull can hop on his horse and ride clear to the Wyoming border. Sometimes he does, just to feel the vast stillness of the Pawnee National Grasslands around him.

But while the open range defines and nourishes him, this third-generation rancher is confronting obstacles common to many in the cattle business these days: Last year, he cut his herd down to half, due to drought. To make ends meet, he took work in the closest town, 50 miles away. "It ain't easy," he says.

Now, however, there could be another option for Mr. Shull. Federal legislation aimed at retiring grazing permits on federal rangelands might just give some ranchers the incentive to sell out and retire in style. Under the Voluntary Grazing Permit Buyout Act, introduced in Congress last month, ranchers who agree to retire their federal grazing leases would receive $175 per "animal unit month" - equivalent to the amount of forage that one cow-calf pair consumes monthly. For a rancher who grazes 300 pairs on federal land for six months, that amounts to a payout of $262,000.

Shull, who holds permits to graze his cattle on the grasslands five months a year, sees merit in the proposal, and wouldn't mind having the option to cash in his federal rights. "I might look at that at some point in the future," he muses.

But he's not sold on the idea yet, even with the current challenges of ranch life. "I love it," he says.

A decade ago, ranchers might have deemed such a buyout heresy. Even today, many do. Yet at a time when the cattle industry is beset by prolonged drought and economic uncertainty, ranchers like Shull are taking a hard look at their options.

Proponents of the bill are counting on the willingness of ranchers to embrace what environmentalists have sought for decades: an end to grazing on public lands. "We see it as a solution for cash-strapped ranchers. We see it as a solution for taxpayers. And we see it as a solution environmentally," says Keith Raether, spokesman for the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign (NPLGC), a coalition of conservation groups lobbying for the legislation.

The text of the bill, which calls for a $100 million allocation, says livestock grazing on public lands is often uneconomical, and that many of the 27,000 federal permittees would readily relinquish their rights for a reasonable one-time payment. "This legislation will go a long way toward resolving the ongoing and contentious debate on public lands grazing in the West," says Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D) of Arizona, a sponsor of the proposal along with Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut.

But cattlemen are a skeptical breed, particularly when the offer comes from federal lawmakers. Or worse, if it mirrors the agenda of cow-bashing greenies. For most ranchers, the buyout proposal looks suspiciously like a Trojan horse.

"While we believe a person ought to be able to do with their permit as they choose, we also feel that this isn't right," says Brett Shawcroft, a rancher in rural La Jara, in south-central Colorado.

In historic ranch communities like this, the issue goes beyond whether an individual cattleman might benefit from the buyout. What's at stake is the future of the community, says Mr. Shawcroft. "If the ranchers go, there goes the town. If we're gone, they don't need a tire store downtown, or the welding shops."

In worn boots and a dusty cowboy hat, Shawcroft tends livestock every day on land his great-grandfather homesteaded. But like many ranchers, he couldn't survive without federal grazing permits. He holds rights to some 30,000 acres of Rio Grande National Forest and Bureau of Land Management pastures that climb into the San Juan Mountains. The family's private land totals only 1,700 acres - not nearly enough to support their 300 head of Hereford-cross cattle. "If the permits go, the whole ranch goes."

But still, some cattlemen see the buyout as a solution to their woes. For John Whitney III, of Sunflower, Ariz., the bottom line is - well, the bottom line. For 35 years, he ran 1,250 head of cattle on his Circle Bar Ranch, grazing on 158,000 acres of national forest land. In 2000, the government shut down his grazing rights because of drought. He hasn't had access since, and had to sell his herd. Now, his federal leases are nearly worthless. Yet under the proposed buyout, they would net him about $2.5 million.

"I have to deal with economics," says Mr. Whitney. "Thirty-five years ago, we had a good thing out there. But boy, things have changed." And it isn't just the drought. "Between all the restrictions, the endangered species, and the introduction of all these species, you just can't ranch anymore," he says.

Whitney has taken heat from the industry for supporting the legislation. "They say, 'You're siding with the devil,' " he says. But he isn't backing down, nor is he alone: In Arizona, 170 ranchers have signed on in favor of the bill.

Environmentalists have long asserted that public land in the arid West is unsuitable for livestock, and that monthly grazing fees of $1.35 per cow amount to "welfare ranching." An end to public-land ranching would save taxpayers at least $126 million a year, says the NPLGC's Mr. Raether. And it would let public lands "rest and recover."

Federal land managers see it differently. According to David Wheeler, rangeland management leader for the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain region, well-managed grazing offers numerous benefits to public lands, from fire prevention to stimulation of vegetation. "If there was no public-land grazing, it would take away a very efficient tool we have in our toolbox." And range conditions are improving, he says. "We've come a long way since the turn of the [last] century, when the range was at its worst. I don't want to paint a picture that every acre is getting better. But in terms of the rangeland as a whole, it's definitely on the upswing."

Industry leaders, meanwhile, say the cattle business is on the upswing. "We're at recent highs for consumer demand for our product," says Terry Fankhauser of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association. "The future looks bright."

While he allows that some stockmen will abandon ranching, others are ready to take their place, he says. And if one rancher wants to forfeit a grazing permit, it should be available to another rancher, not retired. "Otherwise, it's like a 'taking' from the neighboring ranch," says Mr. Fankhauser. "That's the core of our objection: It shouldn't be that one cattleman's decision."

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