As Congress tries to write a new farm bill, it’s an appropriate time to consider an issue of fairness that remains unresolved.
Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., has proposed requiring that fees for grazing livestock on federal lands more closely correspond with fees charged by private landowners.
About 2 percent of livestock producers have rights to graze on federal lands at about $1.35 per cow per month. They pay a fraction of what the remaining 98 percent pay to graze animals on leased private land. That costs roughly $30 per cow per month in northwest Nebraska.
Nelson suggests that the 2 percent are getting a taxpayer subsidy amounting to millions of dollars each year. He indicated that he will try to attach his proposal to the farm bill, now being thrashed out in the Senate.
The Government Accountability Office studied the issue in 2005, concluding that the federal government was paying more than $140 million a year to manage public lands being used for grazing. But only $21 million or so in grazing fees was collected, costing taxpayers about $120 million a year.
The same report found that from 1980 to 2004, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, which manage most grazing land, reduced grazing fees by 40 percent. Fees set in the marketplace for private land rose almost 80 percent during the same period, the senator said.
Erasing the grazing subsidy should save the taxpayers about $1.2 billion over 10 years, Nelson estimates. Only 136 Nebraska producers graze on federal lands; that’s out of 20,000 beef producers statewide.
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., a former U.S. agriculture secretary, didn’t climb aboard Nelson’s wagon. He said the way fees are set takes into consideration private grazing rates, but also accounts for the fact that producers are required to maintain fences and wells, ensure adequate wildlife habitat and comply with federal laws.
Whatever the formula, it doesn’t seem to produce a reasonable, marketplace-based fee.
This is not the first time the issue has been raised. Several times over the past two decades, the question was brought up in Congress. Each time, no action was ultimately taken.
The federal grazing rights question first was addressed with a law in 1934, when grazing use was apportioned and regulated. Uncontrolled grazing had resulted in unintended damage to the soil, streams and plants. The idea of the law was to ensure that lands were managed for balance between forage demands and productivity.
A particular Nebraska rancher running for the U.S. Senate this November happens to have federal grazing rights. So this latest proposal has obvious and unfortunate campaign overtones.
That’s regrettable, because the question of grazing rights on federal land has long been one of fairness.
It doesn’t seem fair to benefit a small number of livestock producers at public expense. In this day of fiscal austerity and budget restraint, a straightforward, market-based change would seem to be an obvious move.