For more than 100 years, thousands of ranchers across our nation’s 14 western states have grazed their animals on the 250 million acres of wide-open space our government owns and sets aside for multiple uses. Public land ranchers own their own private ranches, but pay the government significant fees each year to use the land to graze cattle and sheep. In most places, this public land is rough terrain unsuitable for farming, but the animals can eat the rough grasses that grow in these areas – turning an otherwise unusable natural resource into a free-range, grass fed, high-quality protein source that millions of consumers actively seek out today, while simultaneously serving as stewards of our public lands and providing the numerous environmental benefits of responsible grazing.
In addition to contributing to our nation’s food supply, public land ranchers are responsible for maintaining the government land they lease, requiring significant time and financial resources to ensure that the land is suitable for grazing, sustaining native wildlife and other uses. Their personal investment, in addition to the cost of grazing fees, can be difficult to quantify as it’s a combination of year-round man hours and money for equipment and supplies. Ranchers maintain fences, ensure access to clean water sources, remove invasive plant species, ensure safe recreational spaces, create firebreaks to reduce the spread of wildfires, serve as first responders for wildfires along with many other necessary land maintenance tasks. To get the job done, they also need to provide the needed fuel, equipment and man power.For example, ranchers ensure that all water sources on the government land they work are clean and usable. This could mean hauling heavy equipment, like backhoes, more than 100 miles to dig out a particular spring and then building a structure around it that provides animals the ability to access clean water. In the winter, the ranchers drive out to the water sources on the land and break up the ice so grazing animals and wildlife alike have water to drink.
If you compare the combination of grazing fees and land maintenance costs that ranchers invest to graze on public land to the single fee charged to lease private land for grazing – where the landowner does all the land maintenance for you – researchers find that ranching on public land is a more significant investment. A 2011 study conducted by University of Idaho Extension Agricultural Economists found that public land ranchers pay on average $1.20 per animal unit (AUM) more than those who graze on private land.
Taking land maintenance work into account, public land ranchers ultimately save the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) more than $750 million in taxpayer dollars each year. It costs the BLM $5 per acre to do the necessary land maintenance work on public lands. Conversely, it only costs the BLM $2 per acre for land that’s allotted for grazing since the rancher makes such a significant investment in maintaining the land for the government. In fact, if the BLM were to undertake the maintenance on public lands that’s currently provided by ranchers, the agency would require a 60 percent budget increase.
At the end of the day, public land ranchers are able to turn an otherwise unusable natural resource into healthy, free-range, high-quality protein while reducing the land management burden and budget demands of our federal government. It’s important that policy decision makers weighing in on the value of the industry have a real understanding of the numerous benefits of public lands ranching to our nation. This might require stepping away from their urban workplaces and visiting a ranching business, in one of the 14 western states where this work takes place, to inform the decisions they will ultimately be making on Capitol Hill. The experience would be well worth the effort.
Richards is president of the Public Lands Council and an Idaho rancher.