Tug-of-War over Federal Lands Leads to Standoff

Lost in all the hoopla over “y’all queda” and “VanillaISIS” is any basic history of how public rangelands in the West–and in eastern Oregon in particular–got to this point. I’ve seen no mention in the press of two laws that are probably more responsible than anything else for the alienation and animosity the Hammonds felt towards the government.

The first law, the Public Rangelands Improvement Act of 1978, set a formula for calculating grazing fees based on beef prices and rancher costs. When the law was written, most analysts assumed per capita beef consumption would continue to grow as it had the previous several decades. In fact, it declined from 90 pounds to 50 pounds per year. The formula quickly drove down fees to the minimum of $1.35 per cow-month, even as inflation increased the costs to the government of managing the range. 

The 1978 law also allowed the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to keep half of grazing fees for range improvements. Initially, this fund motivated the agencies to promote rancher interests. But as inflation ate away the value of the fee, agency managers began to view ranchers as freeloaders. Today, the fee contributes will under 1 percent of agency budgets and less than 10 percent of range management costs. Livestock grazing was once a profitable use of federal range lands but now costs taxpayers nearly $10 for every dollar collected in fees.

Ranching advocates argue that the grazing fee is set correctly because it costs more to graze livestock on federal land than on state or private land. But the BLM and Forest Service represent the sellers, not the buyers, and the price they set should reflect the amount that a seller is willing to accept. Except in cases of charity, no seller would permanently accept less than cost, and costs currently average about $10 per animal unit month.

The second law, the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act of 2000, was an environmentalist effort that affected the lands around the Hammonds ranch. The “protection” portion of the law put 176,000 acres of land into wilderness, which ordinarily does not shut down grazing operations. The “cooperative” portion offered local ranchers other grazing lands if they would voluntarily give up their leases in the wilderness. Nearly 100,000 acres were closed to domestic livestock when every ranch family accepted the offer except one: the Hammonds.

The Hammonds came away from the bargaining table convinced the government was trying to take their land. The government came away convinced the Hammonds were unreasonable zealots. The minuscule effect of grazing fees on their budgets also probably led local officials to think domestic livestock were more of a headache than a contributor to the local or national economy. Dwight and Steven Hammonds’ convictions for arson were more due to this deterioration in their relations with the BLM than to any specific action the Hammonds took. 

It doesn’t take much scrutiny to see that domestic grazing is not a viable use of most federal lands. The Forest Service and BLM manage close to 240 million acres of rangelands that produce roughly 12 million cattle-years of feed. While the best pasturelands can support one cow per acre, federal lands require 200 acres for the same animal. This 240 million acres is nearly 10 percent of the nation’s land, yet it produces only about 2 percent of livestock feed in this country, while less than four percent of cattle or sheep ever step on federal lands.

The problem is that decisions are made through a political tug-of-war rather than through the market. One year, Congress passes a law favorable to ranchers; another year, it passes a law favorable to environmentalists. The result is polarization and strife.

If these lands were managed in response to market forces, the agencies would probably shed much of their bureaucratic bloat, but the costs of providing feed for domestic livestock would still be several times the current grazing fee. Ranchers unwilling to pay that higher price would find alternate sources of feed. If some ranchers continued to graze their cattle and sheep on public land and environmentalists didn’t like it, they could outbid the ranchers or pay them to manage their livestock in ways that reduced environmental impacts. 

The current system is far from a free market, and free-market advocates should not defend it. A true market system would reduce polarization, lead to better outcomes for both consumers and the environment, and would not have resulted in ranchers being sent to prison for accidentally burning a few acres of land.