Update 02/05/2016: USFS & BLM released new grazing rates earlier this month. For 2016, grazing on federally managed land was increased to $2.11 AUM.
A comment I made on a social media site last week angered an old friend. He’s a guy I grew up with and attended the same school with for 11 years. We played football together for a few years. (He put a good hit on me in high school practice that dislodged the cartilage in my left knee. I think of him often during winter steelheading season when the arthritis kicks in, but that’s another story.)
I remember going to wrestling matches and cheering him on and I remember seeing him at basketball games hollering and cheering us on. I particularly recall the days leading up to a wrestling match. I’d see him in layers of sweat gear, running up and down the hallways of school before class, after class, during lunch breaks, etc., working his ass off to make weight for the upcoming event. I admired his work ethic and dedication to his chosen sport. He was a natural leader – active in numerous clubs and organizations. I haven’t seen or spoken with him in probably 20 years, but have little doubt he continues to have that same work ethic and dedication in his chosen profession.
My old friend is a cattle rancher. His parents and grandparent were cattle ranchers. I honestly don’t know how many generations that goes back, but assume it’s several. Their property is one of the most beautiful places on this earth, headquartered in an “in-between” location of high desert plateaus and forested high country in Southern Idaho. It’s one of those places that folks would refer to as “God’s Country”. I can understand his frustration and anger. He’s scared and angry because his way of life is fading away. And worse yet, it’s fading away on his watch. I’d be angry too. I can even relate to some of what he’s experiencing. I’ve spent 30 years of my life in an industry that is changing and looks to be heading towards an end.
What I’ve been able to glean from his comments is that he sided with the Bundy Group on the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge – specifically about the unfair treatment of the Hammond’s and what should be done with public lands. In my opinion, the Hammond’s were found guilty of breaking a law by a jury of their peers and were sentenced accordingly. Criminal justice is not my forte and I have nothing further to say in that matter. I do have some strong feelings regarding public land, which I’ve commented on in a previous post.
So let’s try to look at that issue from the Bundy perspective for a moment. The basic premise was to give ownership of Federal Land to the people. What is the fair and equitable way to do such a thing? Does that federal land go to the State, the County, or to the individual residents? In the case of federal land in Harney county, that’s roughly 7,500 square miles of land.
If the State of Oregon takes ownership of the that land, it creates some problems. The state is not staffed, nor has the budget to manage that property right now. The State has more lenient environmental regulations that the feds do. Good for capitalism, bad for people, wildlife and the tourism industry. Not so good for cattle ranchers though. Their grazing fees would go from $1.50 per AUM (Animal Unit Month) to around $8.00 per AUM. If Harney County takes ownership of that land, it compounds the same problems the State would have – staffing for management and administration, budgeting, establishing fees and permit charges, etc.
If a governmental agency of any sort owns the land (State or County), there will be a drive to privatize it. If they can’t charge enough in fees to cover the expenses, the land would likely be sold to the highest bidder at some point down the road. Politicians will be involved. Who do you think will end up with the land in that scenario? Small family ranchers, well funded environmental groups, large corporate timber-mining-cattle operations? My guess is that it won’t be the small family rancher like my old friend in Idaho. My fear is that it will be large corporations. I doubt there will even be a public bidding process for it – the politicians are beholding to others that have funded their campaigns and I’d bet the land is already divided up to contributors just waiting for things to become official. In that case, the resources will be exploited, the environment will be destroyed and small time cattle, timber and agriculture operations will turn to dust. Those cattle ranchers that survive may get the opportunity down the road to obtain grazing leases on that land, but only after all the uranium, gold, silver, trees and everything else has been extracted from the open pit mines and clear cuts. The water supplies will likely be contaminated with solvents, heavy metals and other waste materials, so they’ll have to bring in their own water.
So what happens if we “give it to the people”. The first question I ask is “what people”? Is it divided up to every man, woman and child who is a resident of the State of Oregon? If that’s the case, we all get 1.22 acres of land in Harney County. Yeehaw! I’ll take my one acre straddling the Donner und Blitzen River, thank you very much. Is that land in question divided up among the residents of Harney County? They’d all get 908 acres of land to do with as they please. That’s enough to make me want to establish residency there so I get a share of it. Oh wait. If I own it, then I’m going to be on the hook for the State of Oregon property taxes levied against it. How will the single mother who works at the McDonald’s in Burns, OR afford to pay the property tax on her 908 acres? Well, she could lease it out as private grazing land and make the going rate of $24.00 per AUM. I’m sure the local ranchers will be knocking down her door with those sort of offers. Or she call sell it to a corporate mining or timber company. We already explored that path and it doesn’t end well.
As a final idea, let’s give it to the original inhabitants of the area – The members of the Paiute Indian Tribe. They’d each receive 15,693 acres. Historically, they have the best track record when it comes to being stewards of the land. They used the resources from that land very efficiently for hundreds of years without exploiting or destroying it.
Sure, the options I’ve laid out are worse case scenarios. But what my old friend is advocating does have some serious consequences. If the land remains in the public trust, managed by the federal government, ranchers are asked to pay the $1.50 AUM for grazing, Sportsmen get access for hunting, fishing, camping, bird watching and some level of oversight is there from an environmental perspective to make sure the land is taken care of.
If the land goes into State ownership, the ranchers pay $8.00 AUM, Sportsmen likely lose some access, environmental protections are reduced and ultimately, the ownership will transfer to corporate interests.
And finally, if the land goes to private individuals, ranchers will pay $24.00 AUM, Sportsman will likely lose ALL access, environmental protections are a free for all and dependent on each individual’s views. Most likely, that land will find it’s way into corporate interests as well at some point.
For me, it all leads back to the status quo, with the addition of things like Malheur Comprehensive Conservation Plan and the Klamath Basin Agreement worked out jointly by the local stakeholders – farmers, ranchers, conservation groups, environmentalists, local residents, sportsmen, utility providers, politicians and governmental management agencies. Although the second example died while collecting dust in DC, the idea was a great one and many of it’s key components will happen regardless. The point being is that all parties can come to the table and come up with a workable solution. No one party wins, but we all get a place at the table and get something in the end. Ultimately, we’re just borrowing this earth from future generations and we have a responsibility to pass it on to them in better shape that we found it. So far, we haven’t done a very good job of that.
So to my old friend I say this. I feel for you. It sucks that your way of life and livelihood is going away. No amount of yelling, screaming or bullying (armed or not) is going to help your current situation. You’re getting the best deal available as it is right now. The transfer of federal public land to anyone else will not make things better for either of our causes. I would welcome the opportunity to have a civil dialog in order to find common ground that benefits us both.
Tight Lines and Keep em wet.