Western ranchers are in a quandary. In the West, a region of wide open spaces, they have difficulty finding land to graze their livestock. Anyone who has driven across the West has seen land that appears to be nearly limitless in its quantity, stretching from horizon to horizon, yet the landlord is moving ranchers off the land or limiting the number of cattle or sheep they can graze.
The landlord is the federal government.
Most of the open land in the West is owned by Uncle Sam. In some states, the federal government owns most if the land — 86 percent of Nevada, 81 percent of Alaska, 61 percent of Idaho and Utah and more than 40 percent of Arizona, California, Oregon and Wyoming.
Whether and how much land the federal government should own has been debated for centuries. In the early years of the nation, the federal government could own little or no land within the states, but in the West it retained the lion’s share.
This land is not just national parks like Yellowstone or Yosemite. For the most part it is open spaces suitable for cattle and wildlife and not much more.
Federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service manage most of it.
Overall, BLM manages 43 percent of federal lands. The Forest Service oversees 25 percent.
The BLM says its mission is to “manage and conserve the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations under our mandate of multiple-use and sustained yield.”
The Forest Service says its mission is to “sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.”
Nowhere in those mission statements does it say that ranchers should be pushed off the land. Nowhere does it say that access to national forests should be limited. Yet that is exactly what’s happening.
Here’s an example. Fifty years ago, the Forest Service allowed 760 cow-calf pairs to graze on 35,000 acres near Dufur, Ore. That was a cow-calf pair for every 46 acres. Now the agency wants the number of cattle allowed there reduced to 50 pairs. That’s a cow-calf pair for every 700 acres. In addition, the length of time a grazing would be allowed was reduced from 4 months to 2 1/2 months.
“I think it’s a movement to get everybody off of the public lands and turn it into a national park or something,” Mike Filbin, the rancher who formerly grazed cattle on that land, said.
Filbin’s experience has been repeated across the West, for a variety of reasons. Poorly managed swaths of federal land and forests have become overgrown, opening them to catastrophic wildfires and reducing the area available for grazing. Environmental groups have used the Endangered Species Act as a blunt instrument to shut down grazing despite ample evidence that well-managed grazing benefits the land and wildlife.
There exists no ready answer to this quandary, only the hope that common sense will return to the management of public lands.