Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act
The VGPRA could alleviate grazing conflicts on public lands.
Cattle grazing in the Blue Range Wilderness of New Mexico. Photo George Wuerthner
Anyone who has ever worked on public lands livestock issues knows that modifying the negative impacts of ranching operations, much less eliminating them, is nearly impossible. Domestic livestock grazing even occurs in national parks, national monuments, wilderness areas, and other public lands that most people believe are set aside for nature and native wildlife.
The Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act is a proposed solution introduced by Congressmen Adam Smith of Washington and Jared Huffman of California. It has been introduced in previous Congressional sessions but has yet to pass the House and Senate.
Legislation is needed because terminating any grazing privileges is exceedingly difficult.
Occasionally, an environmental group “wins” a lawsuit that forces the managing agency (Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management) to alter its grazing policies, but often. Still, often, this is little more than moving the chairs on the deck of the Titanic—at best, you get some minor adjustments in livestock use and are still stuck with the presence of domestic animals on public lands.
Though grazing on public lands is a privilege (a lease), hence not a right (despite what ranchers say about grazing rights), terminating such privileges is often exceedingly difficult. One reason for rancher resistance to grazing termination is that public grazing allotments are “attached” to specific private ranchlands. When a private ranch is sold, the public grazing privileges often go with the ranch.
Thus, a public lands grazing allotment adds value to the private ranch. The rancher can profit more from selling their ranch if public land privileges are attached. Some banks will even lend money to a rancher based on their public land grazing privileges. Therefore, there is frequently resistance to any termination from the rancher and perhaps their lender.
Cattle damage to riparian area on BLM lands in Montana’s Centennial Valley. Cattle have trampled streambanks, polluted the water, and removed streamside vegetation. Photo George Wuerthner
Even where there are well-documented impacts to public resources like water pollution, damage to riparian areas, competition between native herbivores and privately owned livestock, and other impacts, eliminating livestock use is nearly impossible due to the political power of the livestock industry.
Federal agencies will often spend hundreds of thousands, even millions of taxpayer dollars, to modify grazing when terminating all livestock use would have the most public ecological and economic benefits.
Rather than terminate grazing, agencies tend to spend taxpayer funds on “range developments” that prolong livestock use of public lands. Cattle trough and windmill on BLM lands, Utah. Photo George Wuerthner
Instead of eliminating domestic animals, most federal agencies do all kinds of shenanigans to maintain livestock use, like putting in water pipelines to distribute livestock, fencing riparian areas, changes in season of use, and other mechanisms designed to address environmental concerns without eliminating domestic animals.
One reason for this is job security. Allotments are managed by range conservationists whose jobs would disappear if all grazing were terminated. So, they have a financial incentive to do everything possible to maintain some livestock on an allotment.
Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement removed livestock from the Boulder White Clouds Wilderness, Idaho. Castle Peak . Photo George Wuerthner
This is where the Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement legislation comes in. If passed by Congress, the legislation would allow the permanent termination of a grazing permit. The Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement policy has been successfully implemented at California’s Death Valley National Park, Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park and Arches National Park, Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve, and Owyhee Canyonlands and Idaho’s Boulder-White Clouds. In all cases, permit retirement was tied to specific legislation, such as the designation of a national monument or a new wilderness area.
Livestock were eliminated from the Cascades Siskiyou National Monument, Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner
Funding for permit retirement has come from third-party private sources. After the permittee and funders agree on a price per Animal Unit Month (AUM), the federal agency decides to terminate livestock grazing on those particulate lands.
One reason for federal legislation is that it provides permanence. A new administrator (District Ranger, for example) can’t, at some later date, decide to reissue a grazing permit for that allotment.
Termination of livestock privileges can reduce conflicts with species like the wolf. Photo George Wuerhner
The Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act legislation aims to make permit retirement available as a potential management tool on all federal grazing lands. The legislation also guarantees that any permits waived before the Act will be permanent. It also terminates any claim to range developments that may exist on the allotments.
While the Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act has apparent benefits for the public, it also provides ranchers greater flexibility in their livestock operations. Ranchers can use any funds from a permit buyout to purchase private lands or pay off debts, consolidate their business, or retire with what grazing activist Andy Kerr calls a “Golden Saddle.”
As good as the proposed legislation is for public lands, some limits are worth mentioning. In order (I suspect) to avoid opposition from ranching interests, the proposed legislation restricts permit termination to not more than 100 grazing permits in the 16 western states and no more than 25 permits in any one state.
Congressman Smith plans to reintroduce the Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act sometime this month. Writing to your representative and asking them to co-sponsor this Act would be helpful.