Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Livestock Grazing in the National Park and Wilderness Preservation System

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy and Mark Salvo. 2000. Livestock Grazing in the National Park and Wilderness Preservation Systems. Wild Earth. Vol. 10, No. 2. Summer. 53-56.

By Andy Kerr and Mark Salvo

Domestic livestock grazing in the National Wilderness Preservation System is—in all cases—inimical to the wilderness concept. Nevertheless, it is allowed.

Livestock grazing in the National Park System is—in almost all cases—inimical to the purpose of national parks. Nevertheless, it is allowed. Livestock grazing is currently permitted in 32 units of the park system. Six of these are Civil War monuments (grazing occurred at the time of designation, indeed at the time of the war) or units surrounded by sprawling urban landscapes and are not considered further here. 1

This article addresses the question: Why!? More importantly, we suggest how such abominations against Nature and sound public policy can end in the most politically and financially efficient manner.

Cowboy Power

Although livestock grazing on the public lands is ecologically destructive, economically irrational, and contrary to the wishes of the vast majority of the American people, it still occurs—even in the most sacred of national parks and Wilderness Areas. We believe there are four major reasons for the status quo.

1. History

Livestock (acting on behalf of cattle and sheep barons) were (ab)using the public lands for 50–150 years before any such lands were designated as parks or Wilderness Areas. Our political system usually grants great advantage to prior appropriation, and grazing is no exception.

2. Political Power

Historically, cattle (and formerly sheep) barons were extremely powerful politically, and held public office in vast disproportion to their numbers. Our political system grants great advantage to the formerly powerful because the democratic system of checks and balances tends to resist change.

3. Unknowing Public

Because cattle have been so pervasive throughout the American West for so long, few examples of ungrazed arid ecosystems are readily visible to the public. People are accustomed to seeing “cow bombed” landscapes. In contrast, examples of standing virgin forest are numerous (though not as numerous as clearcuts) and the public can easily appreciate the difference. Given the nature of arid lands, cow-damaged landscapes are often perceived as aesthetically pleasing, even though ecologically wounded.

Consider this poem written in 1907. The second line mars an otherwise eloquent tribute to wilderness.

    Have you wandered in the wilderness, the sagebrush desolation,
    The bunch-grass levels where the cattle graze?
    Have you whistled bits of rag-time at the end of all creation,
    And learned to know the desert's little ways?
    Have you camped upon the foothills, have you galloped o'er the ranges,
    Have you roamed the arid sunlands through and through?
    Have you chummed up with the mesa? Do you know its moods and changes?
    Then listen to the Wild—it's calling you. 2

By the turn of the century, the American perception of desert and grassland wilderness was imprinted to accept cattle grazing as pervasive in otherwise pristine landscapes.

4. Unknowing Conservation Movement, Apathy, and Other Priorities

Most of the conservation movement knows little more than the public about the ecological costs of livestock grazing. Historically, and to the present day, conservationists have chosen to ignore livestock grazing's chronic damage to instead address what are perceived to be more acute threats to biodiversity. Efforts against logging, road-building, mining, and development are higher priorities to most conservationists than livestock grazing. 3

Grazing in the National Park System

Prior to their designation as national parks or monuments, most NPS units were used for livestock grazing. Compare the strong (and archaically eloquent!) language against timbering and mining in the act establishing Lassen Volcanic National Park—created about a week before the enactment of the National Park Service Organic Act of 1916—against the exception for livestock grazing (and cars).

Lassen Volcanic National Park shall be under the exclusive control of the Secretary of the Interior. He shall make such rules and regulations and exercise such powers as are enumerated in section 3 of this title....Such regulations shall be aimed primarily at the freest use of the said park for recreation purposes by the public and for the preservation from injury or spoilation of all timber, mineral deposits, and natural curiosities or wonders within said park and their retention in their natural condition as far as practicable and for the preservation of the park in a state of nature so far as is consistent with the purposes of this section and sections 201 and 203 of this title. He shall provide against the wanton destruction of the fish and game found within the park and against their capture or destruction for purposes of merchandise or profit, and generally shall be authorized to take all such measures as shall be necessary to fully carry out the objects and purposes of said sections....The regulations governing the park shall include provisions for the use of automobiles therein and the reasonable grazing of stock. 4

The Lassen grazing language is typical for National Park System units in the West (click here for table) and the National Park Service generally. In 1916 Congress passed the National Park Service Organic Act, creating the National Park Service and providing direction for managing the national parks.

The service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations hereinafter specified, except such as are under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Army, as provided by law, by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments, and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations. 5

The same law concedes grazing in parks:

Provided, however, That the Secretary of the Interior may, under such rules and regulations and on such terms as he may prescribe, grant the privilege to graze livestock within any national park, monument, or reservation herein referred to when in his judgment such use is not detrimental to the primary purpose for which such park, monument, or reservation was created, except that this provision shall not apply to the Yellowstone National Park. 6

Before the creation of the National Park Service, the US Army managed our parks with a definitive dislike for domestic livestock. The Army excluded cattle from Yellowstone National Park since its establishment in 1872. The Army also defended Sequoia National Park against livestock.

In the winter of 1917–18, after the passage of the Organic Act, then Interior Secretary Franklin K. Lane sent a letter to Park Service Director Stephen Mather implementing a new grazing policy. The Lane Letter authorized cattle grazing in parks in “isolated regions not frequented by visitors” and where “natural features” would not be harmed. 7 It forbade sheep in the parks, however.

The Organic Act and the Lane Letter codified grazing in the National Park System. 8 Given the era, one can understand the allowance of limited cattle grazing, especially considering wartime pressures for beef production and the newness of the National Park Service. The agency had yet to establish itself as a sustainable bureaucracy capable of demanding adequate funds from Congress, commanding public support, and setting its own course.

The grazing provision in the Organic Act remains on the books today, although, mercifully, it has been mitigated by administrative regulation that disfavors livestock grazing:

(a) The running-at-large, herding, driving across, allowing on, pasturing or grazing of livestock of any kind in a park area or the use of a park area for agricultural purposes is prohibited, except:
(1) As specifically authorized by Federal statutory law; or
(2) As required under a reservation of use rights arising from acquisition of a tract of land; or
(3) As designated, when conducted as a necessary and integral part of a recreational activity or required in order to maintain a historic scene. 9

“Historic scene” generally refers to Park System units associated with colonial times or the Civil War. A hostile administration could overturn this regulation.

Grazing in the National Wilderness Preservation System

When Aldo Leopold, the nation's greatest ecological thinker and cofounder of The Wilderness Society, wrote his management proposal to establish the nation's first formally protected wilderness area in the Gila country of New Mexico, he grandfathered in livestock grazing. Forest Service historian Dennis M. Roth noted:

In May 1922, Leopold, now assistant district forester in Albuquerque, made an inspection trip into the headwaters of the Gila River. When he returned, he wrote a wilderness plan for the area that excluded roads and additional use permits, except for grazing. Only trails and telephone lines, to be used in case of forest fires, were to be permitted. 10

Regarding the Gila, Leopold's biographer Curt Meine added:

Some cattle grazed there, but Leopold considered this an asset in that frontier grazing operations were themselves of recreational interest. The cattlemen, too, would benefit by the exclusion of new settlers and hordes of motorcars. 11

Meine also observed that Leopold was seeking ranchers as allies in his efforts to regulate hunting as part of an overall game management regime, which included predator control at the time. 12 This was before Leopold killed his last wolf and watched the “fierce, green fire” die in its eyes. 13 However, as with wolves, Leopold's thinking on livestock grazing evolved. Meine noted that “in his later years, he would place increasing emphasis on wilderness as a `land laboratory,' a place to understand how biotic communities are able to function in a state of health.” After visiting de facto wilderness in northern Chihuahua in 1936–37, Leopold wrote,

I sometimes wonder whether semi-arid mountains can be grazed at all without ultimate deterioration. I know of no arid region which has ever survived grazing through long periods of time, although I have seen individual ranches which seemed to hold out for shorter periods. The trouble is that where water is unevenly distributed and feed varies in quality, grazing usually means overgrazing. 14

Leopold's change of heart could not save the Wilderness System from hungry livestock. Once the precedent favoring grazing was established, it became impossible to change later in more formalized Forest Service wilderness rules. As Roth noted:

Grazing is the oldest and best-established use of national forest areas. Until the 1920s, grazing fees were the largest source of income from all national forest system lands. Stockmen were a potent political force in the West and exerted their power whenever the Forest Service threatened to raise grazing fees or cut back on overgrazing. Under these circumstances the Forest Service had allowed controlled grazing in wilderness areas under the L-20 and U Regulations. 15

The first draft of what became the Wilderness Act, written by Wilderness Society Executive Secretary Howard Zahniser, characterized livestock grazing in wilderness as a “nonconforming” use which should be terminated “equitably.” 16 In subsequent versions of the bill, Congress stated that “grazing of domestic livestock...may be permitted to continue subject to such restrictions as the Secretary of Agriculture deems desirable” (emphasis added). 17 However, the final language in the Wilderness Act of 1964 states “...the grazing of livestock, where established prior to the effective date of this Act, shall be permitted to continue subject to such reasonable regulations as are deemed necessary by the Secretary of Agriculture” (emphasis added). 18

At the time the Wilderness Act passed in 1964, conservationists were more concerned about ongoing Forest Service attempts to declassify existing administrative wilderness areas to allow new road-building and logging, rather than the continued grazing of livestock. Robert Wolf, who served on the staff of Senator Clinton Anderson (D-NM), then chair of the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, says Anderson went along with the compromise to ensure passage of the wilderness bill. Anderson, a former Secretary of Agriculture, knew that grazing was subject to reduction for purposes of conserving range condition. Anderson also felt that grazing was increasingly uneconomic and would decline in the future. 19

In 1980, Congress again took up the matter of Wilderness grazing in the Colorado Wilderness Act, stating that:

The Congress hereby declares that, without amending the Wilderness Act of 1964... with respect to livestock grazing in National Forest wilderness areas, the provision of the Wilderness Act... relating to grazing shall be interpreted and administered in accordance with the guidelines contained under the heading “Grazing in National Forest Wilderness” in the House Committee Report... accompanying this act. 20

This is a very unusual provision of law. It states that Congress is not amending the Wilderness Act, but it effectively does. It also incorporates, by reference, language in a committee report. Like all obtuse, confounding, and unclear congressional language, there are reasons for this.

In 1980, the conservation community was fighting dreaded “hard release” legislation. Such legislation would have prevented the Forest Service from ever again considering Wilderness designation for roadless areas. If enacted, the agency's final environmental impact statement on its second Roadless Area Review and Evaluation (RARE II) would stand for wilderness areas for all time. A compromise was struck where Congress enacted “soft release” language, which prohibited further wilderness consideration for a specified time. Part of the compromise was what became known as the “Colorado grazing language” (although it applies to all national forest Wilderness Areas, and subsequently to Bureau of Land Management Wilderness Areas as well).

The statement—contrary to fact—that the Wilderness Act was not being amended was a face-saving gesture to conservationists who surrendered the issue. Somewhat curiously, the Wilderness Act sits unamended in the United States Code, precisely as it was enacted in 1964. Compare this to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 in which additional stream segments have been protected by amending the original law. Amendments have also improved the overall protections afforded by the rivers law. As additional areas are protected under the Wilderness Act (along with any weakening provisions that accompany them), they are placed elsewhere in the United States Code, usually as a legislative “note.” Consequently, conservationists have a colorable assertion that “the Wilderness Act” has never been weakened.

The Colorado grazing language entrenches livestock interests in our National Wilderness Preservation System. 21 It ratifies, in stronger terms, the grandfathering of livestock grazing in Wilderness Areas. It expands the Wilderness Act grazing provision to include Wilderness Areas managed by any federal agency. 22 It allows the use of motorized equipment to service livestock. 23 It allows for new fences, water, and other developments. 24 It allows for increased numbers of livestock. 25 Any authority previously conferred upon the Secretary of Agriculture to require reasonable regulation of grazing to protect wilderness values is weakened. 26 There is effectively no restriction on domestic livestock grazing—no matter how reasonable—in any Wilderness Area as a result of its designation as such. 27

Current Trends No Better

Every relevant Wilderness bill enacted by Congress has included language to provide for livestock grazing. 28 Congress has not revisited grazing in Wilderness since the Colorado compromise.

For the National Park System, congressional grazing policy has slowly improved. In 1994, Congress enacted the California Desert Protection Act. While grazing in the new Death Valley National Park and Mojave National Desert Preserve was permanently grandfathered (at no more than current levels and subject to Park Service regulations), authority was granted to the National Park Service to acquire base properties (those private lands to which federal grazing permits have traditionally been attached) in order to end grazing on adjacent park lands. 29

With fits and starts, Congress has also begun setting a time-certain end to grazing in some new parks. In 1999, Congress established the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, grandfathering livestock grazing in the park (1) for the lifetime of the individual permit holder in the case of an individual permittee; or (2) for the lifetime of the individual permit holder, or dissolution of the partnership or corporation, in the case of a commercial permit holder. 30

While we appreciate such congressional actions, they are rare, and they do not occur for parks already established. Ultimately, these creative solutions are at the mercy of powerful cowboy-lobbyists who could act to prevent them in the future.

The Solution: Permit Retirement

Despite the inability of the conservation community to effectively address the problem of livestock grazing in our nation's Wilderness Areas and parks through traditional means, progress has been made using a new market approach. In many cases, funds have been secured to compensate federal grazing permittees for voluntarily relinquishing their grazing privileges (they are not rights) back to the government. Once permittees have renounced their privileges, the federal land management agencies have used a variety of methods to retire the permit.

Money talks. Numerous permittees, when offered fair compensation, have traded their permits for cash. There are indications that many more permittees would take similar deals if offered. The transactions completed to date have all occurred under special circumstances—within special land designations, supported by aggressive public servants and an engaged conservation community (some “good cops” who come up with the money and other “bad cops” who threaten Endangered Species Act listings, litigation, and other troubles for permittees). To allow for broad applicability on all public lands, we must change the law. 31

The total forage allocated to livestock grazing on BLM lands is 12,186,335 animal unit months (AUMs). 32 Estimated forage allocated to grazing on the national forests is 9,249,239 animal months. 33 A reasonable and generous estimate of the West-wide average fair market value per AUM is $75. 34 For $1.6 billion the scourge of livestock grazing—not only within the National Park and Wilderness Preservation Systems, but on all public lands—can end. The major source of funding for such a buy-out would have to be the federal government. Disregarding the diminution of recreation conflicts and the benefits to biodiversity and watershed protection that such an action would engender, this is also a very attractive financial investment for the taxpayer. Current federal subsidies for public lands ranchers total about twenty-five percent of that amount annually. 35

Critics within the conservation community have these major objections to paying the grazing permittees to end public lands grazing:

1. Grazing is a privilege, not a right. The federal government can withdraw it anytime.

2. The taxpayers should not have to pay permittees to not cause damage to the public's lands.

3. It is morally wrong to reward resource abuse on public lands.

These are valid criticisms, worthy of thoughtful consideration. We offer the following response:

1. While the federal land management agencies can reduce or eliminate grazing—and, in fact, are under a legal obligation to do so—they very rarely do. Where agencies have withdrawn grazing privileges, it is usually due to expensive litigation by conservation groups, a permittee who refuses to pay his grazing fee (usually the permit is simply reissued to another rancher), or where the agency manager knows that the bottom line of the permittee will not be harmed by the decision (coincidental compensation by a third party). In some cases, land managers have proposed reductions for ecological reasons, but have had their plans nixed by agency directors under congressional pressure.

2. Taxpayers are already paying permittees, through subsidized grazing fees and other assistance programs, to degrade the public lands. Consider the buy-out payments as hush money to the permittee not to complain on his way out the door. Moreover, it's just money. Is it more important to defend the federal public lands or the federal treasury? Choosing is not necessary in this case, because permit retirement does both most effectively.

3. To conserve and restore the Earth, sometimes one has to rise above pure principle. An excessive adherence to principled opposition to an injustice can often interfere with ending the injustice.

There can be a time—in our lifetime—when we enjoy a freedom long lost to Americans. That freedom is being able to toss a sleeping bag out on our public lands and not having to worry about it landing on cattle dung.

Andy Kerr of The Larch Company ( writes and consults on environmental issues. He spent 20 years with the Oregon Natural Resources Council, the group which helped make the northern spotted owl a household name. His new book, Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes, was recently published by The Mountaineers Books.

Mark Salvo ( serves as grasslands advocate for American Lands in Portland, Oregon. He coordinates American Lands' campaign to protect the northern sage grouse, the “spotted owl of the desert.”


1. Davis, Kathy. July 23, 1999. General and Specific Legislative Authorities Pertaining to Domestic and Feral Livestock Grazing in the National Park Service (unpublished draft). Phoenix, AZ: US Department of the Interior, National Park Service.

2. Service, Robert. 1907. The Call of the Wild, in The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses. New York, NY: Dodd, Mead & Co.

3. For a full treatment of the history of public lands livestock grazing and why it should end, see Debra Donahue, 1999, The Western Range Revisited: Removing Livestock from Public Lands to Conserve Native Biodiversity, Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

4. 16 United States Code ¤ 202 (1998).

5. 16 USC ¤ 1 (1998).

6. 16 USC ¤ 3 (1998).

7. Sellars, Richard. 1997. Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. p. 57.

8. Ibid.

9. 36 CFR ¤ 2.60 (1999).

10. Roth, Dennis. 1995. The Wilderness Movement and the National Forests. 2d ed. College Station, TX: Intaglio Press. p. 2.

11. Meine, Curt. 1988. Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press. p. 196.

12. Meine. September 1, 1999. Personal communication.

13. Meine 1988, see note 11, p. 458.

14. Leopold, Aldo. 1937. Conservationist in Mexico. Washington, DC: American Forests (reprinted in Wild Earth 10(1): 57–60).

15. Roth 1995, see note 10, p. 9.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. 16 USC ¤ 1133(d)(4) (1998).

19. Wolf, Robert. November 13, 1999. Personal communication. For a brief analysis of the current economic contributions of public lands livestock grazing, see Mark Salvo, 1998, The Declining Importance of Public Lands Livestock Grazing in the West, Public Land & Res. Law Rev. 16: 103-??.

20. Pub. L. No. 96-560 ¤ 108 (codified at 16 USCA ¤ 1133 notes [1998]).

21. House Comm. on Interior and Insular Aff. Designating Certain National Forest System Lands in the National Wilderness Preservation System, and for Other Purposes. HR Rep. No. 617, 96 Cong., 1 Sess. (1979).

22. Ibid, p. 10 (“ has been the clear intent of Congress...that the practical language of the Wilderness Act would apply to grazing within wilderness areas administered by all Federal agencies, not just the Forest Service.”).

23. Ibid, p. 12 (“Where practical alternatives do not exist, maintenance or other activities may be accomplished through the occasional use of motorized equipment. This may include, for example, the use of backhoes to maintain stock ponds, pickup trucks for major fence repairs, or specialized equipment to repair stock watering facilities.”).

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid (“If land management plans reveal conclusively that increased livestock numbers or animal unit months could be made available with no adverse impact on wilderness values...some increases in AUMs may be permissible.”).

26. Ibid, p. 11 (“Any adjustments in the numbers of livestock permitted to graze in wilderness areas should be made as a result of revisions in the normal grazing and management planning and policy setting process....”).

27. Ibid, p. 11 (“There shall be no curtailments of grazing in wilderness areas simply because an area is, or has been designated as wilderness.”).

28. See ibid, p. 10 (“In fact, special language appears in all wilderness legislation, the intent of which is to assure that the applicable provisions of the Wilderness Act, including Section 4(d)(4)(2) [the grazing provision], will apply to all wilderness areas, regardless of agency jurisdiction.”).

29. 16 USC ¤¤ 410aaa-5(a)-(b) (1998).

30. Pub. L. No. 106-76.

31. For a full discussion of the concept, see Andy Kerr, 1998, The Voluntary Retirement Option for Federal Public Land Grazing Permittees, Rangelands(20): 26-29 (published simultaneously in Wild Earth 8(2): 63-??).

32. Bureau of Land Management. 1996. Public Land Statistics. Washington, DC. p. 64.

33. General Accounting Office. 1993. Profile of the Forest Service's Grazing Allotments and Permittees. Washington, DC. p. 15. A Forest Service animal month is approximately the equivalent of a BLM AUM, or the amount of forage necessary to feed one cow and calf, or five sheep, for one month.

34. Kerr 1998, see note 31, p. 27.

35. Ibid.