Cattle Grazing on Public Lands

The Hard Fought Battle in the Southwestern United States

Revised 5 October 1996


Cattle grazing on public lands in the West has not always been an issue between different segments of society. Until recently, cattle grazing was undisputed, a natural part of the culture of the West. Cowboys, Indians, tumbleweeds and cows were the first thoughts to most people's minds when thinking of the western United States. The picture is no longer so clear. For the last couple of decades, a battle has been raging between cattle ranchers and environmentalists. The battle is characterized by mistrust and misunderstanding by both environmentalists and cattle ranchers. The two views are to a large extent, irreconcilable, but there is room for compromise. The battle between these views has rarely been friendly, and has often been fierce. It is a battle fought in American public range policy.


1. Introduction
1.1 Subject
1.2 Purpose
1.3 Scope

2. History of cattle grazing in the Western United States
2.1 Cattle grazing before the 20th century
2.2 Cattle grazing from 1900-1970
2.3 Cattle grazing after 1970: the battle begins
3. The Interest groups
3.1 The ranching and economic perspective
3.1.1 Occupation steeped in tradition
3.1.2 Governmental ownership of too much land
3.1.3 The Wide open spaces
3.1.4 The economic aspect
3.2 The Environmental perspective
3.2.1 Cattle and environmental degradation
3.2.2 Grazing leases: a continuation of the welfare state?
4. The policy makers behind the issue of cattle grazing on public lands
4.1 Government agencies
4.2 Cattlemen/cattle interest groups
4.3 Environmental activists/environmental activist groups

5. Incentives operating on grazing policy makers
5.1 Government agencies
5.2 Cattlemen/cattle interest groups
5.3 Environmental activists/environmental activist groups

6. Evaluation of cattle grazing on public lands
6.1 The driving forces behind the political clash
6.1.1 The Dominant Social Paradigm
6.1.2 The new socio-environmental paradigm
6.2 Is there a solution to the public lands grazing problem?

Cattle Grazing on Public Lands:
The Hard Fought Battle in the Southwestern United States

1. Introduction
This report analyzes the laws, public policy, and views behind the two sides of the cattle ranching on public lands debate.

This report has been prepared to give the reader a brief, historical, public policy based background on the debate over cattle grazing on public lands.

This report will address the history, the laws and regulatory practices, the public opinion, and the public policy behind cattle grazing on public lands in the western United States. The public lands predominantly addressed will be those under the supervision of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The BLM controls more land open to grazing in the west than any other land agency. The Forest Service is the second largest holder of federal land in the west, and will also be prominently featured in this report. Analysis of the cattle grazing issue will be conducted by looking at the following subjects:

1. the history of cattle grazing in the West
2. the laws pertinent to cattle grazing in the West
3. the current cattle grazing policy from a rancher's perspective
4. the current cattle grazing policy from an environmentalist's perspective
5. perspective on the current cattle grazing policy on public lands
6. alternatives to the current grazing policy on public lands.

Before the turn of the nineteenth century, cattle roamed freely on the ranges of the American West. The fences that now characterize the western rangeland were all but nonexistent. Early cattle ranchers in the west found that they had to use the Spanish style of open ranging of livestock. The southern (U.S.) method was not feasible due to the lack of good winter grazing, and the larger amount of land required for cattle forage. (1)

Much of the cattle came from Texas, in the form of the Longhorn. The Texas longhorn was left behind by Spanish missionaries, who let the Longhorns to run wild. The quality of the Longhorn stock was poor, but the cattle proved to be prolific. Left to fend for themselves in the wild, Longhorn numbers skyrocketed. In 1830, it was estimated that there was 100,000 head of cattle in Texas. By 1860, an estimated 3.5 million head roamed the Texas rangelands. It was during the late 1830's that cowboys started herding the wild cattle to other states to be sold. Perhaps the best description of cattle ranching in the West was J. Frank Dobie remark that, "after the Civil War all it took to become a cattleman in Texas was a rope, the nerve to use it, and a branding iron." (1)

The era of ungoverned cattle grazing continued through the early 1900's. New forest and range management regulations were developed for timber, mining, and fire control, but grazing on public lands was largely ignored. A grazing fee was instated in 1906 by the Forest Service, but it only applied to Forest Reserve land. The fee did not cover public domain lands (now BLM land). Not until two years after the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 (43 U.S.C. 315) was anything done to regulate grazing on all public lands.

The Taylor Grazing Act (TGA) of 1934 was made in response to problems caused by severe overgrazing and damage to soils.(2) The act is what gives government agencies the basis for their authority to manage public lands. It also gives government agencies the authority to make grazing districts and impose grazing fees for those districts. A grazing fee was not imposed until two years after passage of the act.

For the first ten years after the grazing fee was instated on BLM land, the fee was the cost of administration of the grazing lands, five cents per Animal Unit Month (AUM). On Forest Service land, the price depended upon livestock prices. The cost of the grazing fee more or less rose steadily through the 1970's. The only other act to affect grazing during this period was the Independent Offices Appropriation Act of 1952. The act didn't specifically target grazing, but it did require that "Where federally owned resources or property are leased or sold, a fair market value should be obtained." This provision of the act was never very effective however. Federal lands are leased far below fair market value even today. This is due mainly to political pressure wielded by ranching interest groups.

The 1970's ushered in a new era of laws pertaining to the administration of public lands. The Federal Land Policy Management Act (FLPMA) was enacted in 1976. FLPMA declared that ". . . the United States receive fair market value of the use of public lands and their resources unless otherwise provided by statute." In 1978, the Public Rangelands Improvement Act (PRIA) instituted a grazing fee based on the economic value of the land being grazed. The economic value of the land was to ". . . [reflect the] annual changes in the costs of production [and beef prices]." The grazing fee hit it's highest price in history under the PRIA system. This happened in 1980.

Nineteen eighty was the last year that the Forest Service and the BLM had different grazing fees as well. The Forest Service fee was $2.41. The BLM fee was $2.36. The following year, the fee for both agencies fell to $2.31. The fee declined until it reached $1.35 in 1985. The grazing fee rose back up to $1.82 in 1993(3) but was lowered again to $1.61 March 1, 1995. (4)

The most recent major effort to change grazing laws was Rangeland Reform '94. Rangeland Reform '94 consisted of a major Environmental Impact Study analyzing five different rangeland management alternatives, and seven grazing fee alternatives. Debate over the Environmental Impact Statement was heated to say the least. Eventually, enough pressure was wielded by pro-grazing forces that little became of the attempt at rangeland reform.

The ranching and economic perspectives usually go hand in hand on the public lands grazing issue. Whenever ranchers are threatened with a grazing fee increase, they becry the economic impact on themselves, and on the community in which they live. In a survey of ranchers, "Respondents reported that they spend about $19,000 annually in local communities . . ." (3) In the same survey, when asked what they would do if prohibitions were put on public grazing, 21% reported they would retire, 16% reported they would find a new occupation, and 21% reported a conversion of their private land to development. It should be noted here that 57% reported they would decrease the size of their operation, and 9% reported that they would move to another state.

As shown in section 2.1 cattle grazing in the western United States has a history that goes back almost as far as white settlement in the West. History has shown on numerous occasions that tradition dies hard. The cattle ranching tradition is certainly no exception to this generality. An argument often used by ranchers to try to protect their trade when it is threatened is that their family has been ranching for generations, and that it's important to keep that tradition alive. In other examples, history has shown that holding on to traditional ways can be both good and bad. Only time will tell which way the history of the future will look upon continuing current tradition of cattle grazing on public lands.

Many rancher, and other resource users contend that the federal government owns too much land in the West. This argument carries over to state governments as well sometimes. Indeed, few would argue that the government owns much of the West. The federal government owns approximately one third of the land in the continental U.S. (5) and over one half of the land in the western states. Some percentages of federal land in western states follow: Arizona 45%, Idaho 61%, Nevada 79%, Utah 60% New Mexico 33%, and Montana 30%.(6) Many resource users say that with this much land under governmental control, their businesses can't grow. (7)

Adding to this feeling of land dominance by the federal government is the recent reduction of freedom by regulations on what used to be the "wide open spaces." Ranchers aren't used to being told where and when they can graze their livestock. Traditionally, they have just been allowed to feed their herds wherever and whenever they wanted. So while many non-ranchers see the ranchers as getting too much land, for the ranchers, the land at their disposal now is a significant reduction. One rancher commented on how it makes him feel like he's losing his home little by little. He feels trapped by the regulations that are taking away his grazing land. (8)

Many westerners believe that much of the federal land in the West should be privatized. They argue that privatization will spur growth and bolster the economy. Even city councils becry federal land ownership, saying that their city can't grow because it is constricted by federal lands. This is the setting in which modern western ranchers live in. The dominant view of most ranchers seems to be contradictory to the fact that only 22% of ranchers in 11 western states use federal land and that these ranchers only use federal lands for 25% of their forage. (9)

With respect to the grazing fee issue, ranchers argue that raising the fee would force them to stop ranching for economic reasons. Ranchers say that they are barely able to make a living now, so if grazing fees are raised it will be the last straw for their ability to sustain themselves on their ranching income. Currently, a family member living on the ranch, brings home an average of 23% of the household income from some off-ranch source. The average ranch in Arizona has two people working off ranch accounting for 53% of the household income. It should be noted though, that according to one survey, though 85% of the ranchers polled said an increased grazing fee would harm them, only 6% opposed raising grazing fees, and 56% of ranchers with no federal grazing permits favored raising the grazing fee.

The environmental perspective is often seen as a very radical one in the West. In many cases, this view is correct. Often, environmental activists advocate absolute abolishment of all moderate-high impact uses of the nation's natural areas. No matter how noble it might be to keep the land in it's completely natural state, this proves to be a highly unfeasible goal. Indeed, one might ask as to the reasoning behind such a goal. For as long as human kind has been around, it has impacted it's environment in some way. Perhaps a more appropriate goal, which is one that some environmentalists advocate, is how to cause as little impact as possible.

The main problem many environmentalists have with cattle grazing is that cattle are a non-native species to the environments in which they roam. Since cattle are non-natives, their impact on the environment is greater than native species like elk and deer. Cattle have not evolved in the ecosystems in which they have been placed, and therefore they do not co-exist with those ecosystems well. Whereas deer and elk are highly mobile foragers, cattle are stagnant foragers. What this means is that deer and elk move around so much that they do not overgraze an area or cause soil damage. Cattle on the other hand, will often remain in the same area until they have eaten all or most of the edible material there. Only after most of the vegetation has been eaten will they move on. (10) Cattle also need more forage than elk or deer.

Cattle are accused of a wide range of environmental atrocities. They reduce aesthetics with their fecal matter, with the trampling of vegetation, and with their mere presence. They overgraze, causing forage loss for other ungulates. Overgrazing has also been linked to soil erosion due to the loss of water retention and runoff reduction capacity of vegetation. Cattle destroy wetlands by grazing nesting habitat for waterfowl, by adding suspended solids and bacteria to the water, and increasing water temperature. From personal experience, cattle also directly destroy waterfowl nesting sites, usually by trampling them. Cattle also have a wide variety of effects on riparian areas.

Many opposed to grazing on public lands use economics to add additional weight to their environmentally based objections to grazing. They try to sway people's opinions by becrying the huge subsidy being given to cattle ranchers who are destroying the environment. Few would argue that the grazing fees are so low that they amount to a subsidy. Where the dispute arises in just how much ranchers are subsidized and the issue of subsidies based on necessity.

The only straight forward number in the grazing fee debate is that the current grazing fee is $1.61 per AUM (Animal Unit Month). After that, the discussion becomes widely theoretical and open for debate. The fair market value of the public lands open to grazing range from a low of $5.72/AUM in Arizona to a high of $17.00/AUM in Nebraska as published in the Rangeland Reform '94 Draft Environmental Impact Statement. (11) The mean cost was $9.80/AUM for 17 western states. According to one BLM employee however, some studies show that fair market values are as low as $2.50-$3.00/AUM with adjustment factors thrown in. (12)

The strongest numbers some environmentalists use in the fight against cattle grazing on economic grounds is the net federal receipts associated with grazing leases. Considering total receipts from grazing leases and total costs for things such as grazing management and range improvements, the net federal receipts in 1982 was negative $36.4 million. The federal government lost over $41 million on grazing in 1983. (13) These losses were accrued to produce only 2% of the total food eaten by cattle in the U.S. (14) Ranchers with federal grazing permits make up only 2% of the nationwide total of cattle producers, and only 7% of cattle producers in the West. Forty-one million dollars does indeed sound like a lot of money to be spent on such a small number of people. (15)

Environmental forces use these figures to demonstrate that a grazing fee increase will do three things. They show that a grazing fee increase will affect very few people. A grazing fee increase will have a minimal impact on those it does affect. Increasing the grazing fee will reduce the governments losses. Environmentalists also argue that raising the grazing fee will improve range stewardship by ranchers, because they will want to get as much as they can for their money.

The cattlemen and cattle interest groups are, in general, highly vocal players in the issue of cattle grazing on public lands. Cattle ranchers are consistently present at public meetings where laws or regulations concerning cattle ranching are going to be discussed. Ranchers and cattle interest groups also often express their opinions to their elected official and to government officials in general. Cattle interest groups also make campaign contributions to people running for office who share the views of the cattle industry. The National Cattlemen Association (NCA) is one of the more powerful and vocal of these groups. The NCA has often had a significant impact on government decisions concerning the cattle industry in general, and grazing on public lands specifically.

As one might expect, these groups often advocate government non-interference. In general, they see regulations imposed by the government as interfering in an area the ranchers know more about than the government. To a certain extent, they are right. Governmental regulations also often reduce the profit margin of the cattle industry. No one likes to see their cash flow reduced.

Environmental activists and environmental activist groups (hereafter, "environmentalists") are another major player in the public lands grazing issue. Environmentalists can be equally as vocal as cattle interests, but their participation seems to be more sporadic. They don't always attend public meetings where grazing issues are going to be discussed. When they do attend, they are often outnumbered. Because of this, their position seems to be the minority one, even though the opposite might be true. A possible explanation for this relative lack of participation is that environmentalists rarely have a direct economic stake in the outcome of grazing decisions. Without this economic incentive, it is harder to motivate oneself to action. Environmentalists express their concerns to governmental official as well. Their ideas go largely unheeded by elected officials though. Environmentalists often do not have the economic "pull" of cattle interest groups, and elected official, ultimately, need money to get reelected. It has been well established that usually, economics rule politics.

Government agencies are the entities that are most often called upon to solve the differences between cattle interests and environmentalists. Government agencies are pulled in different directions by each group. Traditionally, these agencies have had tendencies to side with one group or the other, but agencies are increasingly seeking the middle ground. In Arizona, both the BLM(16) and the State Land Department(17) have programs in place that bring environmentalists and ranchers together in an attempt to reach a mutually agreeable situation.

It is interesting to note that in the process of the BLM's cooperative program(18), environmentalists and ranchers have found that they all wanted the same thing. They just have different views of how to achieve what they both believe to be good things. This type of program should be commended, because it brings the debate into the real world. It is much easier to hate and reject the views of a faceless person. Once people sit down and work with "the enemy," they often find that there is no enemy, just a different outlook on life.

In this way, government agencies are going beyond regulations by doing what no regulation can do. They are promoting an understanding between two seemingly polar views to achieve a sensible balance that both parties feel comfortable with. This is the best type of public policy because both sides win. Environmentalists get what they so adamantly strive for, and eventually, regulations that hinder capacity of ranchers to make a living will no longer be needed.

Government agencies have the dubious job of trying to please everyone. This is of course impossible. Agencies have to listen to ranchers, ranching groups, environmentalists, environmental advocates, other government agencies, and all three branches of the U.S. government Individuals and interest groups have some degree of direct influence on government agencies, but the primary incentive operating on government agencies is funding.

Without funding, government agencies aren't government agencies, or at least they are not effective agencies. To get funding, government agencies appeal to Congress and the office of the President. These two entities have pressures of their own. Industry and environmental groups pressure individuals in the legislative and executive branch to vote in their groups favor. Often this pressure involves campaign contributions. In this process, democracy is not always served. An interest group may represent few people, but have more money. It is unfortunate that in these matters, money talks. He who talks, has power. The situation is still far more complex than that though.

The incentives operating on cattle ranchers and cattle interest groups are decidedly fewer and less complex. The primary incentives are money and maintaining a lifestyle. In the case of corporate cattle operations, money is the dominant incentive. Cattle ranching on public lands can yield good incomes. For smaller, private cattle operations, money is still certainly a factor. Ranching is their job, and they fight to keep that job just as anyone else in any other job would fight to keep it. Family ranchers tend to see their fight to be able to continue to ranch on public lands as a fight to maintain their way of life. They see themselves as maintaining a great heritage of the American West. It is their duty to uphold that heritage.

While environmental activists and activist groups may understand the incentives operating on cattlemen, they may not agree that keeping ranchers employed and their lifestyle alive is worth the price. Ranchers, as well as some government employees, often do not understand the incentives operating on environmental activists. Many a rancher has complained about not understanding why environmentalists have a problem with what the ranchers are doing.

Environmentalists feel that nature is more or less sacred. As such, it should be treated with respect and disturbed as little as possible. Environmentalists would like everyone to treat nature as if it were a religious shrine, by not desecrating it. Money is rarely an incentive for environmentalists. Instead, they receive happiness or enjoyment out of spending time in natural wilderness areas, or often by merely knowing that such unchanged wilderness areas still exist.

The fight over public lands grazing is a fight over two competing social paradigms, the old dominant social paradigm, and the emergent socio-environmental social paradigm.

The Dominant Social Paradigm (DSP) dictates that physical growth is always good, and human benefits supersede all other benefits. This usually means economic or human welfare benefits. Cattle ranchers often subscribe to the DSP. They place economics above most other values, and almost certainly above environmental values. This seems contradictory to the statement above that ranchers and environmentalists have the same goals, just different views of how to get to them. It is not. After all, who wouldn't like to live in a beautiful, clean environment? The real difference between the two factions is the willingness sacrifice other values for the environment. Ranchers, on the whole, are not willing to sacrifice other values such as economics and lifestyle for the betterment of the environment.

The socio-environmental paradigm really arose out of the environmental and social reform movements of the 1960's. These movements fostered the development of a new way of thinking. The environmental movement in particular proposed that there are prices of development that are too high to pay. Another significant change in thought brought on by the environmental movement is that humans are no more important than any other species on the planet. This idea is still believed by a select few, even in the environmental movement, but many environmentalists share this view to a lesser extent. As might be expected, this new paradigm has been slow in replacing the old DSP.

There does seem to be a simple solution to the problem of cattle grazing on public lands. The solution, simply, is to raise the grazing fee. In reality, the grazing fee affects so few cattle ranchers that raising the fee would only marginally affect the cattle industry. Raising the grazing fee would actually help a majority of cattle ranchers because they are currently being undercut by those ranchers who can make a larger profit on subsidized government land. Not only this, but the government would save tens of millions of dollars in the process.

For those who think this solution is far from unilateral, and that it favors the environmental side over the ranching side, think of these two points. One, many environmentalists would like to see cattle banned from public lands. A grazing fee increase would still allow ranchers to graze cattle on public lands. Two, why should taxpayers pay people to degrade the land owned by those same taxpayers? The taxpayer ends up paying at both ends. They pay the ranchers in the form of below cost grazing fees, and again when the government has to remedy the degradation caused by the cattle.

It is only a matter of time before the grazing fee will be increased. The new political fad is to cut as many government expenditures as possible. Eventually the debate will reach a critical point where cattle ranchers will have to answer some tough questions. Eventually, the sacred cow of cattle grazing on public lands will suffer the fate of other government subsidies. The only question is when it will happen.


Briefing Report to Congressional Requestors, Rangeland Management: Grazing Lease Arrangements of Bureau of Land Management Permittees, May 1986. (General Accounting Office GAO/RCED-86-168BR).

Dobie, F.J., The Longhorns, (Boston, MA: Little Brown & Co.), 1941, pp. 21.

Freemuth, John, "Federal Land Management in the West:, in Zachary A. Smith, editor, Environmental Politics and Policy in the West, (Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, Debuque, Iowa, 1993), p. 202.

Grazing Fee Review and Evaluation, The Secretary of Agriculture and Secretary of the Interior, 1986, p. 79. A 13.2:G79.

Hanneman, Michael D., Effects of Cattle, Elk and Mule Deer on a Narrowleaf Cottonwood Riparian Community Under a Short Duration Grazing System in Northern Arizona, Masters Thesis, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, AZ 1991.

Norlagg, Neil, Personal Interview, rancher, Mormon Lake, Arizona, 8 March 1995.

Rangeland Reform '94 Draft Environmental Impact Statement, The Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management in cooperation with the Department of Agriculture Forest Service, I53.19:R16.

Smith, Zachary A., The Environmental Policy Paradox, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ Prentice Hall, 1995), p. 195.

Tersey, Darrell Personal Interview, Rangeland Management Specialist, Bureau of Land Management, Phoenix District Office, 19 April 1995.

Young, James A., Sparks, Abbot B, Cattle in the Cold Desert, 1985. Utah University Press, Logan, UT 84332-9515, p. 68.


(1). F.J. Dobie, The Longhorns, (Boston, MA: Little Brown & Co.), 1941, pp. 21.

(2) Briefing Report to Congressional Requestors, Rangeland Management: Grazing Lease Arrangements of Bureau of Land Management Permittees, May 1986. GAO/RCED-86-168BR, pp. 1-14.

(3) Grazing Fee Review and Evaluation, (The Secretary of Agriculture and Secretary of the Interior, 1986, A 13.2:G79), p. 79.

(4) Personal Interview, Darrell Tersey, Rangeland Management Specialist, Bureau of Land Management, Phoenix District Office, 19 April 1995.

(5) Zachary A. Smith, The Environmental Policy Paradox, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ Prentice Hall, 1995), p. 179

(6) John Freemuth, "Federal Land Management in the West:, in Zachary A. Smith, editor, Environmental Politics and Policy in the West, (Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, Debuque, Iowa, 1993), p. 202.

(7) Personal Interview, Gary Hase Jr., Natural Resource Manager II, Range Section, Land Department, State Forestry Division, 20 April 1995.

(8) Personal Interview, Neil Norlagg, rancher, Mormon Lake Arizona, 8 March 1995.

(9) Rangeland Reform '94 Draft Environmental Impact Statement, (The Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management in cooperation with the Department of Agriculture Forest Service, I53.19:R16), p. 1-9

(10) Michael D. Hanneman, Effects of Cattle, Elk and Mule Deer on a Narrowleaf Cottonwood Riparian Community Under a Short Duration Grazing System in Northern Arizona, (Masters Thesis, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, AZ 1991), pp. 11-19.

(11) Rangeland Reform '94 Draft Environmental Impact Statement, p. 1-8.

(12) Personal Interview, Darrell Tersey, Rangeland Management Specialist, Bureau of Land Management, Phoenix District Office, 19 April 1995.

(13) The Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of The Interior, Grazing Fee Review and Evaluation Final Report 1979-1985, (Department of Agriculture Forest Service and the Department of The Interior Bureau of Land Management, A13.2.G79, 1986), p. 7.

(14) Federal lands accounted for 10% of the rangeland forage and 2% of total food consumed in 1982.

(15) There are 27,000 cattle ranchers with federal permits versus 386,000 without. In effect, the government is paying an average of over $1500 per year to each cattle rancher who depends upon federal lands for less than a quarter of his total livestock feed.

(16) Personal Interview, Darrell Tersey, Rangeland Management Specialist, Bureau of Land Management, Phoenix District Office, 19 April, 1995.

(17) Personal Interview, Gary Hase Jr., Natural Resource Manager II, Range Section, Land Department, State Forestry Division, 20 April 1995.

(18) The BLM cooperative program seems to be more organized and less ad hoc than it's State Land Department counterpart. The BLM program is conducted on rangeland that is set aside for the sole purpose of testing how boards of cattle ranchers, environmentalists, and government officials can aid in implementing a rangeland management plan that is mutually agreeable. The government officials on the board includes employees of the Forest Service and Game & Fish, as well as the BLM.