Public-lands ranchers: Should you trust this
by Paul Larmer
Andy Kerr. Elizabeth Feryl courtesy Andy
economics, drought, and increasing
clashes with other public-lands users
are leading some ranchers to consider
taking the "golden saddle" Ė a check
from conservationists in exchange for
their grazing permits.
help land and ranchers Some
Western ranchers, fed up with economic
problems and other conflicts, are
handing over their grazing allotments to
conservation groups in exchange for a
Buyouts by the
numbers The various grazing
buyout proposals offer different amounts
to ranchers in exchange for retiring
their grazing permits.
One BLM district
grabs the bull by the horns
On the Upper Deschutes area of Oregon,
the Bureau of Land Management is working
to move cows off the public land.
Andy Kerr, who has been an environmental
activist for more than 20 years, was a key
figure in the struggle to curtail logging in the
Pacific Northwest in the 1980s and 1990s. Today,
he is the director of the National Public Lands
Grazing Campaign, which seeks to pass
legislation that would allow the federal
government to buy federal grazing allotments
from ranchers and permanently retire the land
from grazing. HCN executive director Paul
Larmer recently interviewed Kerr about his
transformation from lawsuit-wielding agitator to
PAUL LARMER: Do you see any irony in
the fact that you are leading the charge to send
rather large checks to public land ranchers?
ANDY KERR: Not really. I used the
stick to protect the spotted owl, and I donít
regret that at all. But in 1996, I had my
mid-life crisis, and I started looking to do
something different. Retiring grazing permits
rose to the top because I think we need to do
something big to reverse the extinction curve
for species such as sage grouse, grizzlies and
wolves. And grazing is one of the biggest
obstacles for these species.
Some people have told me: "Andy, you are the
wrong messenger. You canít carry the stick and
the carrot at the same time." I disagree.
Because we have the stick and know how to use
it, we are the logical ones for ranchers to
My board members belong to some of the most
litigious environmental groups working on
public-lands issues. When I first brandished
this idea to them (of buying out ranchers),
everyone to a person hated it. But appreciation
is growing due to its pragmatism.
LARMER: Why is it pragmatic?
KERR: The market for cattle ranchers
has changed; today, there is intense
international competition in the beef industry
that makes grazing on vast acreages in the arid
West uneconomical. Plus, weíve changed the
rules. Ranchers have to deal with federal laws
protecting water and endangered species, and
also with more recreational users who donít
understand or respect ranching.
The public-lands ranching industry is going
extinct; not as fast as the sage grouse or the
grizzly, but it is going extinct. And the buyout
is a fair way to address this inevitability.
Itís a politically elegant solution: The golden
LARMER: How has your campaign been
received by other environmentalists?
KERR: Some folks are concerned about
paying ranchers at all. Others are concerned
that ranchers will be paid more than fair market
value. But there is no free market here. You and
I canít go buy a grazing permit. Itís a closed
system. So the campaign seeks to create a market
in order to end a market.
I tell my enviro friends, "Hey, itís just
money." We environmentalists are always saying
there is more to life than money, so why get
hung up on giving these ranchers a generous
LARMER: But canít the argument be made
that grazing is a privilege and not a right, so
the government should be able to retire
allotments without compensating ranchers?
KERR: The government has the power to
close allotments without compensation, but that
ignores reality. A grazing permit is not a
property right, but it is a property interest.
Ranchers can borrow money at a bank against
their permits, and when they sell their private
base properties, the price they receive is
higher because they have associated federal
LARMER: The price you would pay
ranchers ó $175/AUM ó would turn some ranchers
into instant millionaires. Does this bother you?
KERR: No. The federal grazing program
loses half a billion dollars a year, so the $175
per AUM price in our bill is a great deal for
taxpayers. The reductions in the cost of
managing the system will pay back the up-front
costs of buying out ranchers in a few years, and
the ecological benefits will be huge.
LARMER: Wonít the retirement of
allotments hurt the local towns and communities
that rely on ranchers for their economy?
KERR: Youíve got that backwards: The
ranchers arenít supporting the towns; the towns
are supporting the ranchers. Most ranching
families have to get second jobs in town to
support the ranch.
LARMER: But wonít it cause a new wave
of development as ranchers sell out their
private base properties once their tie to the
federal lands is gone ó the cows or condo
KERR: Development is a reality in the
West. If the best agricultural lands in the
country in Californiaís Central Valley and
Oregonís Willamette Valley canít compete with
development, then how can our poorer
agricultural lands in the interior West? Buyouts
could actually slow the pace of development;
they will capitalize the ranchers so they donít
have to make a hurried decision to sell, and so
they can get conservation easements in place
that allow them to stay on the land longer.
LARMER: If your approach is so good,
why are the cattlemenís groups so opposed?
KERR: The leadership of the national
rancher organizations hates the idea because
they have a vested interest in perpetuating the
status quo. But the membership doesnít; it
understands the economics. If this split sounds
familiar, it is: Industries have long claimed
environmental groups are more interested in
perpetuating conflict than solving problems.
Public-lands ranchers are going through the five
steps of grief and are coming to realize that
the buyout is a viable solution. Some are
fantasizing about using the buyout money to buy
ranches in Nebraska, where it actually rains.
LARMER: Will your legislation ever
KERR: It will take a while to pass
national legislation. But site-specific
legislation is on the move. In Arizona, ranchers
on the Tonto National Forest are pushing an
Arizona buyout bill; the Central Idaho Economic
Development and Recreation Act, backed by
Republican Mike Simpson, has a buyout provision
and it is moving forward; and we have
congressmen and senators supporting a buyout of
ranchers in the Cascade-Siskiyou National
Even if national legislation never becomes
law, we will be successful if buyouts become a
routine way to handle conflicts. When there is
an endangered species or recreation conflict
with grazing on public lands, a buyout should
always be one of the options.