By Eric Pianin, The Fiscal Times
Long before Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy became a conservative folk hero last month for battling the government, federal grazing fees have been a flashpoint of controversy between western cattle ranchers and agencies that govern the use of remote, sprawling and environmentally sensitive western lands.
The monthly grazing fee of $1.35 per head of cattle – which hasn’t changed in the past seven years – barely covers a sixth of the government’s overall management costs including issuing permits. Even so, some like Bundy have refused to pay even a pittance for access to the public lands, and ranchers and their allies on Capitol Hill erupted over any attempt to raise those fees.
“Raising the fee has been a long-time goal of many wildlife activists, but it’s a bit of a third rail in western politics,” Chris Clarke, a California-based natural history and environmental journalist, recently wrote.
...“The biggest thing to understand here is that the grazing fee is not a cost-recovery fee,” Tom Gorey, a spokesman for the BLM, said Wednesday in an interview. If you want to blame Congress for that, go ahead, because they created the formula that we use.”
Public lands grazing fees are set according to a formula Congress enacted as part of the 1978 Public Rangelands Improvement Act. It was reaffirmed by an executive order signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.
BLM says that the grazing fees – computed from a 1966 base value of $1.23 per head of cattle – are periodically recalibrated to reflect current private grazing rates, beef prices and livestock production costs.
...Gorey of the BLM dismisses environmentalists’ complaints about the puny size of the grazing fees as a “subterfuge.”
“Many of these groups plainly don’t want cattle ranching,” Gorey said. “They don’t view grazing as a legitimate use of the public lands. Well, Congress begs to differ. . . . There is kind of an indifference [on the part of environmentalists] to the economic impact to rural communities.”
Efforts by the Obama administration in recent years to boost the grazing fees have encountered stiff opposition from cattlemen and their Capitol Hill allies, including an effort last year to slap a tax on the fees.
But few government officials have stuck their necks out to seek an increase in the grazing fees. The last time a top BLM official attempted to raise the grazing fee, it cost him his job. Jim Baca was forced to resign as BLM director in 1993 after only nine months in office following a political uproar over his proposal to boost the grazing fee to just under $4. Clinton administration Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt reportedly made it clear to Baca that his services were no longer desired. Baca later recalled for reporters that he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a piece of paper containing his resignation. “I told him it was probably best if I went on,” Baca explained, according to one report.
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