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Grazing: A property right? - September 14, 2003

Grazing: A property right?
Ranchers believe so, but the federal BLM says itís just a lease

Mail Tribune
Rancher Bob Miller is bracing himself for the likely end of open range grazing on the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.

"There has been so much adverse publicity and so many people who donít understand the situation that we will not be able to survive this battle, physically or economically," he concludes.

"Consequently, if the public wants the cattle off that bad, then they should pay us for the property rights we own," he says of grazing permits. "These are valid existing property rights."

Rancher Don Rowlett agrees.

"If running cattle out here becomes such an issue that we have to spend half our lives trying to defend it, trying to meet the rules and regulations and facing the lawsuits that come from it, well, I donít have that much time left to live," he says.

But ranchers have to be able to replace lost grazing lands if they are to survive, he says.

"The biggest issue to all of us is the replacement," he says. "It has to be at a fair market value."

Uncle Sam doesnít quite see it that way, says Rich Drehobl, manager of the Bureau of Land Managementís Ashland Resource Area.

He says the bureau does not recognize an AUM ó animal unit month, the equivalent of a cow and a calf feeding for one month óas vested property rights."We only recognize it as a lease," he says. "Itís a privilege, not a right. From the governmentís perspective, they (ranchers) have nothing to sell."

But Ashland resident Andy Kerr, an environmental activist who has long been a burr in the side of the cattle industry, says the AUMs do represent a monetary value.

The financial and real estate markets, along with the IRS, recognize the AUMs as a "property interest," says Kerr, director of the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, a coalition lobbying Congress to pay ranchers to voluntarily give up federal grazing permits.

"For decades on many of these ranches, when the property changes hands, those AUMs routinely go with them," Kerr explains. "So the base property reflects the fact AUMs go with it."

Yet Kerr also rejects arguments by local ranchers who describe the public land AUMs as a property right.

"The Supreme Court has ruled a dozen times since the turn of the (19th) century that federal grazing leases are a privilege, not a property right," he says. "The federal government can cut the number of permits or the season because of a drought or whatever. The court has said that does not constitute a taking that has to be compensated."

Kerr, who has represented the local environmental community in discussing with ranchers a possible buyout of grazing permits on the monument, doesnít hide the fact he is against grazing on public lands.

"I want to end the abuse of grazing on public land," he says. "How could any rational person believe grazing is good for the land?

"These allotments should be retired and the forage reallocated for watershed and wildlife habitat," he says.

His group is proposing that $175 be paid for each AUM on federal grazing land, a price the local ranchers say is way too low.

The average price per AUM is $40 to $75 in the West with as much as $110 to $120 per AUM in the Northern Rockies, according to Kerr.

Noting each AUM per year costs about $30 in taxpayersí money, Kerr says itís disingenuous for ranchers to argue they are paying their way at $1.35 per AUM.

"It costs me more than that to feed my cat," he quips.

Four out of five cattle operations in the United States do not have federal grazing permits associated with them, he observes.

"Itís a fair and equitable and generous way to resolve this conflict," he says. "Hereís an opportunity to provide those permittees and leasees with a golden saddle.

"If they want to go for the fair market value we would support that, but they would be shortchanging themselves," he adds.

Horse feathers, reply the ranchers.

"If they want it, then all we ask is that they pay a fair price ó donít steal it from us," Miller says. "We will sell, but donít try to steal our rights."

He and other local ranchers repeatedly stress they want fair market value for the AUMs, but declined to name a price.

"At this point, I donít think itís fair to put it out in print," Miller says. "All weíre asking for is a fair price representing what it would take to replace what we have for the grazing season.

"Youíve got to feed a cow year round," he adds. "You just donít park a cow like a car or a piece of equipment."

The $1.35 ranchers pay per AUM represents, in essence, a tax on private property, he believes.

Half is earmarked to go into a county fund to improve the range; another 25 percent is for BLM administrative costs; and the remaining 25 percent is used to support local schools, he says.

"If we cannot run the cattle here and want to stay in business and maintain our lifestyle and protect our basic investment, our equity, then we have to go someplace else and purchase this," he says of grazing land.

"These AUMs on the mountain cannot be replaced with dryland range like that just outside of Ashland because that forage is not nutritious this time of year," he says. "You have to go somewhere else where itís nutritious enough to replace this land."

That means costly irrigated pastureland in late summer, he says.

Meanwhile, if the outcome of the ongoing grazing study is simply a predetermined effort to boot out the cattle, then Uncle Sam should not do the study, Miller says.

"The cheapest thing for everybody is to just pay a fair price now and weíll all walk away and do something else," he says.

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