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Corporate Cowboys Hold Most Federal Grazing Permits
by Steven T. Taylor/© 1999 Cascadia Times
Talk to most average Americans who have not followed cattle grazing history and policy -- and few have -- and a common perception emerges. Ranches out West are run by rugged, chap-wearing, hard workers whose fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers ranched the land. That's one of many misperceptions that clouds the grazing issue. Many cling to this belief, perhaps from a desire to retain an image of one of the nation's most famous icons: the independent cowboy.
But as former Bureau of Land Management employee Darrel Short puts it, "Although everything is geared toward keeping the ranches in family hands, most of them are owned by corporations, at least in this western part of the state."
Short is right about corporate ownership of ranches. And, it's not just isolated to western Wyoming. Because while there very well may be public lands ranchers named Buck or Gus or Red, those who own the most land are called, Hewlett-Packard, JR Simplot Co., Union Oil, Texaco, and Anheuser-Busch.
Some 23,000 entities hold grazing permits on all federal lands (which includes permits granted by the Forest Service). Two percent -- or about 500 permitees -- run their cattle on about half of all BLM grazing lands. "This includes four billionaires, several oil companies and other wealthy interests. Further, less than 3 percent of the nation's beef ... is produced by public lands ranching," according to research gathered by the Natural Resources Defense Council and endorsed by a total of 34 groups and individuals.
These corporate cowboys, as well as those ranchers who are private individuals, receive an estimated $500 million annually in government subsidies.
Many defenders of the status quo use a familiar argument to maintain rancher subsidies and minimal rangeland regulation: They say tighter environmental controls and higher grazing fees would severely harm the western economy. But in the West, public lands livestock ranching accounts for about one-tenth of a percent of all jobs, according to a recent economic study of the region by University of Montana professor Thomas Powers.
Critics of the ranching industry say the corporate stronghold on the BLM and congressional oversight of America's range has strangled any attempt to raise grazing fees to what many believe would be more equitable levels. In 1998, the fee was set by $1.35 per animal unit month (AUM). (An AUM is the amount of forage needed to sustain one head of livestock for a month.) This is amounts to a blue-light special for ranchers; the rate on private lands range from about $5.00 per AUM to $15.00, depending on the location.
Most years proposals float through Congress to raise fees on public lands to more adequately reflect private fee rates. But routinely, the proposals fail to gain enough congressional support and die.