Today the Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, and Oregon Natural Desert Association sued the Departments of Interior and Agriculture to compel them to respond to a 2005 rulemaking petition that seeks to increase the fee for livestock grazing across 258 million acres of federal public land.
“The federal grazing program is as fiscally irresponsible as it is ecologically harmful,” said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “In responding to our petition, the government must now choose between correcting and continuing the subsidized destruction of America’s public land.”
The current grazing fee does not recover even the administrative costs of operating the program, leaving U.S. taxpayers to pay the difference. The fee also falls short of paying for the environmental problems this land use causes, and instead enables high levels of livestock grazing that harm ecosystems, degrade watersheds, and cause species decline. In 2010, the government charges just $1.35 per month to graze one cow and calf on public lands administered by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, which is the lowest possible rate under the current fee formula.
"Given the massive budget shortfall our country is facing, we can no longer afford to subsidize a small group of ranchers to graze public lands at public expense," said Mark Salvo, director of the Sagebrush Sea Campaign for WildEarth Guardians.
Although the Administrative Procedures Act requires the government to respond to rulemaking petitions, the Departments of Interior and Agriculture have not responded to plaintiff’s 2005 petition. Today’s lawsuit seeks that response.
“Our public lands are worth far more than cheap forage for private livestock operations,” said Great Anderson, Arizona director of the Western Watersheds Project. “The agencies should take this opportunity to set an appropriate value for livestock use of these lands, which provide habitat for plants and animals, clean our air and water, and provide recreational opportunities for millions of Americans.”
The conservation organizations are represented by attorney Marc Fink of the Center for Biological Diversity and attorney Matt Kenna of Durango, Colorado.
To see a copy of today’s complaint, click here.
To see a copy of the Center’s report on assessing the full cost of public-lands livestock grazing click here.
Livestock grazing is one of the most ubiquitous and destructive uses of public land. It is also a contributing factor to the imperilment of numerous threatened and endangered species. Those species include the desert tortoise, Mexican spotted owl, southwestern willow flycatcher, least Bell’s vireo, Mexican gray wolf, Oregon spotted frog, Chiricahua leopard frog, and dozens of other species of imperiled mammals, fish, amphibians, and spring snails that occur on western public land. Public lands livestock grazing is also a primary factor contributing to unnaturally severe western wildfires, watershed degradation, soil loss, and the spread of invasive plants — as well as annual greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to that of 705,342 passenger vehicles.
Grazing fees apply to livestock grazing across 258 million acres of western public land administered by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management — 81 percent of the land administered by the two agencies in the 11 western states. There are approximately 23,600 public-lands ranchers, representing about 6 percent of all livestock producers west of the Mississippi River.
The low federal grazing fee contributes to the adverse impacts caused by livestock grazing on public lands for two primary reasons: (1) the below-fair-market-value fee encourages annual grazing on even the most marginal lands and allows for increased grazing on other areas; and (2) since a percentage of the funds collected is required to be used on range mitigation and restoration, the low fee equates to less funds for environmental mitigation and restoration of the impacted lands.
A 2005 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service grazing receipts fail to recover even 15 percent of administrative costs and are much lower than fees charged by the other federal agencies, states, and private ranchers. The U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the Bureau and Forest Service grazing fee decreased by 40 percent from 1980 to 2004, while grazing fees charged by private ranchers increased by 78 percent for the same period. To recover expenditures, the Bureau and Forest Service would have had to charge $7.64 and $12.26 per animal unit month, respectively.