Grazing Improvement Act would provide one more treat for welfare ranchers

Provisions would increase rancher base property value solely by issuing longer grazing lease and waving public participation-

An article in fiscally conservative Forbes Magazine looks at the real effects of the “Grazing Improvement Act.” It is yet more money for the elite (or just plain lucky) set of ranchers who hold a public grazing lease.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed the Grazing Improvement Act, S.258, Nov. 21. In the Senate Committee, the Act was made a little less one-sided, especially for the states of Oregon and New Mexico where it will allow non-ranchers to buy out grazing leases from willing ranchers and retire them permanently from grazing.  That these states got some public spirited improvements in the Senate may show that the concern expressed to the Senators in those states had an effect.

For this bill to become law, differences between the House and the Senate will have to be worked out. Assuming the Senate does pass a version of the bill, this traditionally means forming a conference committee where relevant members of the House and Senate work out differences by bargain and compromise. In today’s dysfunctional Congress very few laws are being passed at all, and differences between the two bodies are being settled in unconventional and unpredictable ways, if indeed they are settled.

Here is a link to the article. Grazing Improvement Act will Fleece Taxpayers While Harming the Environment.  By James McWilliams. Forbes Magazine. 


  1. Nancie Mccormish Avatar
    Nancie Mccormish

    Well, I just wrote both my Senators advising them in no uncertain terms to vote against this bill, and asking them to take a stand on it publicly, that the public may know their thoughts (if they have any).

    Both have so far been silent.

    Most likely that will be what I hear coming back in my mailbox, too.

  2. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    Nancie Mccormish,

    Who are your senators?

    Unless they are rural western Republicans or a few bad Western Democrats, like Max Baucus from Montana who is a rancher himself, most likely they have not heard of this bill. It advances under the cloak of ignorance, so they will vote on it based on a cue from a party leader or a campaign donation.

    If your senator is a conservative, it is best to use conservative arguments. There is little use bothering with interior Western Republicans. They support our ranch royalty flat out, but Eastern and Southern Republicans might not want to help this anti-free market, socialist, welfare bill. Republicans in general don’t like public lands nowadays, but that doesn’t mean they will therefore support “government provided” rancher enrichment on these lands.

    Democrats are much more inclined to oppose the bill if they are aware of it, but you have to worry about Interior Western Democrats like Max Baucus of Montana who is the epitome of ranch royalty. Senator Jon Tester of Montana too is not likely to go up against the cattle barons.

    With liberals, there are even more arguments such as most of the former plus concern about rare wildlife, the inequality of the whole thing, and the exclusion of the public.

    With most Democrats you can use a wide variety of arguments, including a growing issue in that party, the inequality of wealth in America, and that includes rural America. You can point out that many of these “ranchers” are really corporations, plundering our public lands for pennies and stepping on economic progress for those who come to the West for its outdoor amenities.

    Democrats believe in climate change and in protecting the environment. They believe in the existence of “the public,” the very existence of which is now under attack in some conservative and libertarian circles — they see us as (or should be) just a collection of individuals seeking economic gain in a hopefully capitalist system.

    1. Nancie Mccormish Avatar
      Nancie Mccormish

      Ralph, my two Senators are both Dems, one is Senator Udall who was on the committee which let this markup through though he wasn’t there in the video, nor did he register an opinion. I have written him now several times asking his position and I’m sure he’s well aware of this bill, but keeping mum.

      The other is aware of it now since I sent information along with my opinion and request for him to take a stand.

      For both I emphasized the PUBLIC in PUBLIC lands, and in PUBLIC service, which I presume is at least part of why they are in office.

      Thanks for sharing your wisdom! I’ll let you know if I receive any substantive responses.

  3. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Democrats believe in climate change and in protecting the environment.

    I used to believe this but I no longer do. Democrats believe in maintaining political power and will follow the party line in order to do it. I don’t believe all Democrats have realistic expectations – for example, screeching and ridiculing others about climate change, but denying that 13 billion people all with a high standard of living won’t make it worse?

    Neither side cares about the environment in an of itself, only how it will benefit people. “The Public” doesn’t even seem to care about the gift people try to protect for them, and topple monuments, kill the wildlife, and spray paint graffiti everywhere. If we wait until the problems of humanity are solves, there will be no wild lands or wild life.

    The extremes at both sides are just mirror images of each other. I never have voted Republican in my life, but I’ve always felt a moderate Republican was a good thing. I’m really disappointed in the Democrats, and I don’t know what I’ll do for the next election. Probably vote with my conscience and exercise my right to abstain.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Ida Lupine,

      I certainly understand why you write this, and I agree to a degree. Because of these things I would list my party preference as “independent” today rather than Democrat, though anti-Republican is a much closer characterization.

      The Democrats have factions inside their party. They always have. So do the Republicans.

      One way of describing the Democrat’s factions are the progressives versus the corporate Democrats. The second group turn me off, and I think they are what you dislike.

      The Republican factions are corporate conservatives (traditional Republicans now pushed hard to the right by the tea party) and the Tea Party.

      Both parties have internal strains that could disrupt both of them, but this has been true in the past with different intra-party factions and yet both Ds and Rs are still just about the only game in town.

      Most folks don’t know how much difference lobbying and a few informed contacts can make on low knowledge bills like the Grazing Improvement Act. It is a completly different situation from “Obamacare” where the member’s of Congress positions are set in concrete.

      1. Ida Lupine Avatar
        Ida Lupine

        You are so right. Thanks!

        1. Nancie Mccormish Avatar
          Nancie Mccormish

          Ralph, by lobbying here do you mean by us common citizens, or what we understand to be powerful vested interests with deep pockets? All I have in my pockets is air!

  4. Tom Page Avatar
    Tom Page

    The argument about improved base asset value raised in the Forbes article is one I haven’t seen before…I can’t say I’ve heard that from any ranchers I know, and it’s not something I consider (as a permittee) when thinking about the provisions in the proposed bill. While it may prove to be true, should the bill ever become law, I don’t think it’s the driving force behind the bill.

    In my experience, the two desires that created the bill were to limit the appellants (essentially the WWP/CBD type lawsuits) and to reduce the amount of labor for the agencies. I don’t support the first option, but there’s definitely a need to do something about the second problem. Writing a voluminous EA (which is necessary to properly analyze the permit application) every ten years for a 100 AUM permit is not a good use of BLM staff time. Either allow the permit to be longer, or provide provisions that would allow for buyouts, if the permittee wanted to do that. It’s encouraging that such a provision has been tentatively enabled in OR and NM.

    Another thing that would be helpful in a 20 year permit program would be the establishment of some sort of RAC or review committee that would meet semi-regularly to discuss range conditions in a specific allotment or district. Such a committee (depending on the makeup) could help overcome the tendency of the agencies to defend previous permitting decisions, and possibly provide a counterweight to the agencies’ discretionary ability to interpret data (which is incentivized to show an “increasing trend”) I don’t know if law would allow for such an independent entity to ask for a permit review, due to range condition, prior to the completion of the permit period, but that would be useful.

    1. WM Avatar

      Tom Page,

      I do not support this bill. However, the idea that a longer term and nearly guaranteed grazing permit for an extended permitting period does give greater comfort to banks that might lend to a current ranch owner or a new purchaser. As you probably know the base asset – the rancher’s owned land, water, fencing and buildings- are complemented by the grazing leases, to make a more economically viable enterprise as has been the case since passage of the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 (and earlier). If the grazing permit goes away or is adjusted downward affecting how many livestock can be grazed where and for how long, or other restrictive condition, then the base rancher owned asset is devalued, and maybe the ranch could not even be sold, because a bank might not loan on it.

      This has been written about before by learned scholars in the public lands law field. It is also a reason even pro-environment Senators might vote in favor of the bill. They don’t want ranchers to go under or devalue Western lands assets in their state.

      It will be interesting to see how even enlightened D’s vote (say CO’s Mark Udall who was on the Senate Committee that reviewed the bill), in states which ranching would be positively affected by this bill, or alternatively continued enforcement of FLMPA as it currently exists (where some grazing permits/leases and allotments may be affected by continued environmental review and the product of a advocacy groups litigating to enforce the law, and the shorter term permits).

  5. mikepost Avatar

    Short term leases incentivize using the leased land as hard as you can. Long term leases, by their very nature, encourage the lease holder to exercize more ecological stewardship if only for their own economic gains in the long term. Obviously retirement of leases is the best option but the 20 year lease is an improvement over what we have now.

    1. CodyCoyote Avatar

      Mike- all of what you say would make more sense if the rancher / leasee were paying Fair Market Value for the allotment, long term or short. If he’s assessed $ 10.00 per AUM instead of the ridiculous ( and insulting ) $ 1.35 per AUM for public graze , I would think that alone would provide him incentive to do real sustainable ag.

      Then again , who knows how the wheels and cogs turn under those Stetsons. Paying more might be an incentive for the herder to run roughshod over the grass and eat as much of it as fast as his bovine’s four stomachs can ingest the stuff.

      Whichever line of reason is followed, the federal grazing fee is ridiculously underpriced and therefore the taxpayer is getting shortchanged. Nothing in Barrasso’s ill bill addresses that rotten core.

      1. WM Avatar


        Just curious. What do you think of Midwest (and even West) subsidies for cultivated cropland, like wheat/corn market subsidies, Conservation Reserve (where the federal government pays a landowner annually not to cultivate certain environmentally sensitive lands), hail damage insurance and other natural hazard premium subsidies?

        Seems to me if you want parity, then these guys should take a hit too, and accept market risks, natural hazard risks, and keep sensitive lands out of production because of the potential for wind and water erosion, plus destruction of habitat (with no federal government help).

        What would be your reasoning for going after public lands grazing and not the other? Or, if we dropped all subsidies how that would play out in the marketplace?

        1. Nancie Mccormish Avatar
          Nancie Mccormish

          Cody, there’s a small issue of who actually OWNS the land to consider.

          Leasing is not equivalent to ownership and should not be considered part of anyone’s property or business value since they weren’t intended to be perpetual. If we want to keep small ranchers in business this is a really expensive (and unjust) way to do so on many fronts.

          As others point out, the grazing leases are not “cash cows” for the public or the agencies involved to manage them but must be for the ranchers or they wouldn’t fight so hard to keep (and extend) them.

          The externalized costs are real but are not showing up on the banker’s or rancher’s spreadsheets since the public foots the bill.

          If BLM staff time is overly consumed in developing useless reports, these costs should be factored into the lease fees, not simply reduced or abandoned by doubling the period a lease is in effect. My understanding is many allotments are barely visited already so this argument falls pretty short of a sensible change.

          “Fee for use” based on actual and externalized costs of grazing public lands would go a long way towards making the 4% of our beef herd which grazes them pay their own way as our supposedly free market reveres. As it is the public is subsidizing for-profit businesses while paying for virtually all the associated costs.

          This bill would further entrench a dysfunctional program and should not be passed.

          1. CodyCoyote Avatar

            Nancie- I keep my silver bullets , garlic, and stake hearts here:


            What I have found in the past 35 years of being active in reform of public lands and wildlife issues is that ranchers and farmers are very averse to having bright sunshine shone into their heavily subsidized ( read: quasi-socialist ) livelihoods, enjoying privileges and reliefs that other sectors not bestowed on other sectors , thus ingrained.

            And yes, I am quite capable of parsing out the cash flow between state, federal, county , special district , and private lands thru the whole spectrum in order to shine the bright light and the larger landscape.

            What we need across the board is to toally reform the public component of the Ag industry to reflect 21st century —not 19th century — socioeconomics.

            1. Nancie Mccormish Avatar
              Nancie Mccormish

              Cody, good on ya! Sounds like you’ve been doing good work a long while and aim to continue. Thank you.

              I’m way short on sleep but found this today… not sure what to make of it. What’s your take? Private vs. public water rights, and it seems Senator Tipton is bashing the BLM for trying to keep public water rights public. I may be reading it wrongly, though.


        2. Ralph Maughan Avatar
          Ralph Maughan

          WM, I guess Cody will pass, but there is the way these programs operate in principle and the political reality — they mostly benefit the wealthiest farms.

          That’s why we attach the often huge dollar figure of subsidies to a particularly noisy and self-righteous rancher or farmer.

          I’d like to see the Farm Bill stay dead, but they attach the SNAP program to it to attract the Democrat votes needed to pass it. I think SNAP is a vital program.

        3. CodyCoyote Avatar

          WM— do you peruse or even know about the EWG Farm Subsidy Database ? It’s an online clearinghouse that lists all dollar subsidies paid to all sectors of agriculture for allr easons under all the various programs. it can be sorted by state, county , zip code, or searchable by name. Goes back to 1995.

          I use it a lot. Therefore I am nt popular with local ranchers and feed farmers who are inherently critical of the federal government, as they stand there with their hands out. It is Jekyll and Hyde Libertarianism and Socialism under the same hat. I remind the rest of the public and tax[payer base how much money Rancher X and Farmer Y recieved in subsidies last year as they swear allegiance to the Tea Party etc etc and rail and wail against real conservation and fair market policy , ad absurdum.

          1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
            Ralph Maughan

            Cody Coyote wrote “I remind the rest of the public and tax[payer base how much money Rancher X and Farmer Y recieved in subsidies last year as they swear allegiance to the Tea Party etc etc and rail and wail against real conservation and fair market policy , ad absurdum.”

            I’d venture that this is why the name “welfare rancher” was coined. Consider this example of puffed up hypocrite farmer congressman (Steve Fincher).

            The wrong Republican to talk about food stamps.”

          2. WM Avatar


            Actually I do know quite a bit about the EWG database and the information that goes into it under the various programs. I even accessed it over the last year while trying to help with the sale of a smaller piece of MT wheat land for an elderly family member. I used it as a starting point to identify potential buyers, whether they were players, and even found the meager payments to the seller. When you look at these numbers over a ten year span or so, they look huge. When you look at the annual payments (as compared to what goes into growing a crop and associated risks), and what the the subsidies are for, not so much. I also had the pleasure of dealing with the Farm Services Agency which administers the various programs. It is not an experience I wish to repeat. And, yes I get the idea that big operations -agribusiness- gets much of the benefit. But, that is the way of the world these days, small operations being bought out. Same is true in the corporate world, as consolidation continues (eg., airlines, cell phone makers/service providers, banks, etc.)

            My point is that the folks in the Midwest or in other more hospitable crop growing climates get a WHOLE BUNCH more subsidies, based on higher yields, or crop growing opportunity foregone in the case of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

            In a practical political sense if a movement gains traction to remove lands from public grazing (an initiative I support by the way), it will have implications in Congress. I just don’t see Western states giving up public grazing, without similar concessions from those Midwest folks, and that, in my opinion, will not happen easily. And then there is the impacts in the marketplace without subsidies and risk sharing by the federal government for hail and natural hazard damage in a climate change world.

            And, back to the family member who sold her land. I think it was a smart thing to do as weather patterns are predicted to be more erratic. It could mean we as taxpayers could be paying out more in the way of subsidies to cultivated land, and that won’t bode well for increasing way below market grazing fees, IMHO.

            1. WM Avatar

              And, in case you are wondering, we sold the property to a smaller independent operator who we thought would be a good land steward, even though we had a higher, no contingency, offer from a cash flush agribusiness – land baron in the area.

    2. WM Avatar


      While what you suggest seems to have a rational basis, some see the the shorter period of ten years, the current permit period, is better, and an adequate time to exercise stewardship and good care of the land. The incentive is already there. When it comes up for review, if the rancher hasn’t done a good job, no renewal, or drop back the AUM’s and add some restrictive covenants, and, importantly, enforce them!

      The BLM and FS just need the staffing and good project management accountability (as well as some political insulation) to do the job the federal law requires. And, that would include retiring some permits and adjusting others, all of which the livestock industry does not want.

  6. Chris Harbin Avatar
    Chris Harbin

    Here is a link from which you can make your position against (or even for) S 258.

    I participated this way but I also plan on contacting my representatives personally. Unfortunately, one of the is Mitch do-nothing McConnell and the other one (even worse) is Rand Aqua-Buddha Paul. Please pray for the people of my state!

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Use those free market loving arguments!!

  7. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    One thing no one has mentioned is the obvious fact that the grazing leaseholder does not own the federal grazing lease. By law, but almost never in political reality, the leaseholder could be stripped of the lease by the government (the lessor) without any compensation for violations of various kinds.

    The lease does have a monetary value, however. This is because it is quite safe from cancellation and the grazing fee is very low (a government created “great deal”) compared to similar private lands. These create a “shadow value” added to the value of the “base property,” which is the private property the leasee by law must own in order to gain a grazing permit. This shadow value, and its potential increase is what Jon Marvel is talking about.

    The federal grazing system by law and how it actually exists is light years from being a free market system. The lease is simply reassigned for free by the BLM or Forest Service if the leasee abandons (waives) the lease or sells the base property. The lease is then almost always reassigned to the new base property owner (who is required to run livestock on it). The government ignores the shadow value of the lease during this reassignment process. So the lease often has a large monetary value, but in a very constrained marketplace.

    The special deals New Mexico and Oregon are getting are to allow non-livestock interests to enter — to purchase (wink, wink) and then retire the grazing lease permanently. They don’t need to own base property. This provision makes retirement of the lease much less likely to involve all this “hateful” litigation.

    In the end it is probably cheaper and more timely to buy a lease shut for environmental\wildlife reasons than to harass it shut by forcing the U.S. government to obey its laws and truly look at the many violations of the laws that are probably present on most grazing leases.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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