Andy Kerr

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

The Policy and Politics of Public Land Grazing Permit Retirement: Mandatory or Voluntary?      

By Andy Kerr

A critical mass is developing in the public lands conservation movement to favor a retirement program for public land grazing permittees. Such a program would retire grazing allotments from any livestock grazing and compensate permittees for the value of their permits.

(For a full discussion, see "The Voluntary Retirement Option for Federal Public Land Grazing Permittees," by the author, published simultaneously in Rangelands 20[5], October 1998 and Wild Earth 8[3], Fall 1998.) COMPLETE THIS LINK TO LIVESTOCK GRAZING HIDDEN XX

This paper addresses the question: Which is best for the environment: a voluntary or mandatory retirement program for federal land grazing permittees? A two-part analysis is needed. Both policy and politics must be considered.

Policy Implications

The first question is one of policy. The answer is clearly the mandatory retirement buyout. It would not allow the option of any permittee continuing to graze the public lands. The success of the voluntary retirement option would be dependent upon the desires, whims, wishes and situations of the permittees.

Political Implications

The answer to the first question is controlling only if each option has a certain and equal probability of being enacted into law. If not, a second question of politics must also be asked and answered: Which has the best chance of political success: a voluntary or mandatory retirement program for federal land grazing permittees?

If one or both of the options are politically unobtainable, any analysis, discussion or debate over the first question, or reliance on the answer to it, is irrelevant.

The voluntary retirement option has a much greater probability of being achieved politically than does the mandatory retirement option.

The Politics of It All

The trend in Congress has generally not been in the favor of conservationists who work to end public land grazing. For example, in the 1960s and 70s, national park expansions generally had a date-certain end to grazing.

In the 1980s and 90s, such has not been the case. In 1980, the Colorado Wilderness Act included language with effectively amended the Wilderness Act to strengthen the ability of permittees to used motorized equipment in Wilderness Areas everywhere.

The Great Basin National Park Act of 1986 grandfathered grazing permanently, as did the California Desert Protection Act of 1994. In 1996, Congress passed an amendment with the unanimous support of the Nevada Congressional Delegation (then two Democrats and two Republicans) which directed the National Park Service to retire grazing, if any permittees voluntarily surrender their permit within the Great Basin National Park. The legislation was supported by the permittees who anticipated payment for doing so from the Conservation Fund.

In late 1998, an omnibus national parks bill included a provision to expand Arches National Park in Utah. In that legislation, the BLM permit affected by the park expansion would have been "grandfathered" until the death of the permittee's last-born child. Fortunately, the bill was defeated, unfortunately for of other reasons.

Even in national park additions, Congress is only most reluctantly and most unfavorably addressing livestock grazing. Congress has not addressed the issue of Wilderness grazing since 1980, and it didn't go our way then, even though the Congress and the White House were both in the hands of the Democrats.

Because it is much more likely to be enacted, the voluntary retirement option will likely result is more livestock being removed from more acres in less time. The mandatory retirement option is politically unfeasible and cannot be enacted into law in any foreseeable period.

Politics is not geometry: the shortest distance between two points is never a straight line. Politics is more like football. The ball is advanced down field in a series of plays. Touchdowns are rarely scored on kickoff returns. Rarely is the best way to the goal line always straight up the middle. The ball moves over, under, around and through; and sometimes even backwards. One even loses possession of the ball and has to play defense. The voluntary retirement option is the best way to regain control of the ball.

The political advantages of the voluntary retirement option are:

The opposition is divided. We know that a significant number of federal grazing permittees would take a retirement deal if offered and if they considered it fair to them. How many cannot be judged, as a permittee is unlikely to turn on his colleagues who wish to continue grazing, at least until the money is assured. If the buyout option is available, a unified cattle industry divides politically.

Conservationists appear reasonable. Conservationists can only hope to win against the cattle industry by looking reasonable in the political debate. Since the permittees would have the choice of whether to retire or not, conservationists would appear reasonable for advocating such.

Conservationists appear compassionate. Since the permittee would be compensated if they choose to retire, conservationists would appear compassionate for advocating such.

Politicians have a solution that works for them. Just as conservationists would look reasonable and compassionate, so too would politicians. The latter must appear so to pass any legislation.

The political disadvantages of the mandatory retirement option are:

The opposition is united. Even permittees who may be willing to sell won't like being coerced.

Conservationists appear unreasonable. Conservationists can only hope to win against the cattle industry by making them, not us, look unreasonable in the political debate. If it is mandatory, the livestock industry does not appear unreasonable. If retirement is voluntary, they appear unreasonable to deny their members a socially just economic option.

Conservationists appear heartless. Public land ranchers have a mystique that translates to a political power far more than either their numbers or economic worth would normally engender. Given most of America doesn't really see grazing as an environmental harm, we have a tough enough time making our case without looking as if we're running the Marlboro man off the range.

Politicians are in a no-win situation. The mandatory approach appears to totally reward the conservation community while totally screwing the ranching industry. Politicians will not want to appear to do either.

If one accepts the reasoning that the voluntary retirement option is most probable to effect politically, another question arises: How effective would the voluntary retirement option be in removing livestock from the public lands?

Will The Voluntary Retirement Option Work?

How successful such might a buy-out program be? There is no reliable way to estimate. Factors will include the financial viability of ranching operations, the personal situations of permittees, the existing and anticipated level of conflict regarding grazing on an allotment, the price of beef, the price of forage and grain, etc.

Conservationists cannot affect several of these variables, but can continue—and increase—conflict over grazing through creative use of the Endangered Species Act, National Forest Management Act, Clean Water Act, Federal Lands Policy and Management Act, Taylor Grazing Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, Wilderness Act, etc. Such will make more permittees more willing to sell out.

What if a permittee wants or needs more than the fair market value the government could pay? This does not prevent others from offering the permittee a premium to sell out. To the degree that money is the limiting factor in a permittee decision to end public land grazing, conservation movement dollars could be used to pay a "bounty" on AUMs that are retired.

Anecdotal surveys suggest that about half of the ranchers who have taken advantage of previous buy-out offers have moved on to other things, and about half have purchased livestock operations not dependent on public land.

As retired allotments begin to recover, they serve as compelling evidence to end grazing on adjacent allotments.


Where should conservationists position themselves on this issue? To use a baseball analogy, being "out in left field" is fine, as that's where some of the most powerful hitters are. However, one doesn't want to be "not even in the ballpark" as that means one is not in the game. The key is staking out the edge of reasonableness, that point which one asks for the most they possibly can without allowing the political process to reject it out-of-hand.

In The Art of War, that great environmentalist Sun Tzu gave this advice over 2,000 years ago: Unless you are sure that you can kill him, when you corner an enemy make sure he has an escape. Otherwise, he has no choice by to fight to the death. That death might be yours.

(Written March 31, 1999.)