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Date: Tue, 9 Nov 1999 11:55:37 -0700
To: "Wild Rockies Alerts" <[EMAIL PROTECTED]>
From: "George Wuerthner" <[EMAIL PROTECTED]>

Published Sunday, November 7, 1999, in the San Jose Mercury News


Cash Cows: Tax dollars still support a Wild West holdover that enriches big
Ranchers and degrades the land

Defenders say cattle jobs are rural lifeblood


Mercury News Staff Writers

BY MANY measures, the American West at the end of the 20th century is more
environmentally healthy than a generation ago. The air is cleaner. New
national parks flourish. The bald eagle and California gray whale are back
from the brink of extinction.

But on millions of acres of public land from the Mississippi River to the
Pacific Ocean, one practice still perpetuates environmental damage that
began in the Wild West 150 years ago -- cattle grazing.

Propped up by more than $100 million last year in taxpayer subsidies,
ranchers leasing national forests and range managed by the U.S. Bureau of
Land Management (BLM) have allowed millions of cattle to grind down native
grasses and trample streams, the lifeblood of the West. Some wildlife have
even been driven to the endangered list.

Yet because hoofprints in streams aren't as dramatic as oil spills, most
Americans aren't aware of the damage.

Even fewer realize they pay corporations and millionaires to create it, all
within the law.

A nine-month Mercury News investigation has uncovered the extent to which
wealthy hobby ranchers, agribusiness giants and corporations -- far more
than hardscrabble families portrayed in John Wayne movies -- benefit from
federal grazing subsidies.

Through Freedom of Information Act requests, the newspaper obtained billing
records of the more than 26,300 livestock operators who lease land from the
U.S. Forest Service and BLM. An analysis found such Rolex ranchers as hotel
mogul Barron Hilton, beer giant Anheuser-Busch Inc. and Mary Hewlett Jaffe,
daughter of Silicon Valley billionaire William Hewlett, enjoying
below-market grazing fees.

"The only justification for this subsidy is folks wrapping themselves in
the cloak of the family farm," said Thomas Power, economics chair at the
University of Montana. "Once it becomes clear these subsidies are primarily
going to large corporations, the cover is blown. It's politically
obnoxious. We're rewarding the rich at the cost of environmental damage."

In 17 Western states, livestock grazing is allowed on 254 million acres of
national forests and BLM land -- an area equal to California, Oregon,
Washington and Idaho. On that vast expanse, about 26,300 ranchers graze 3.2
million cattle.

When it comes to grazing at the federal trough, no one sits taller in the
saddle than corporate cowboys. Their cattle -- and to a lesser extent,
sheep and horses -- dominate the vast public lands of the West.

The top 10 percent of grazing-permit holders control a striking 65 percent
of all livestock on BLM property, federal records show.

Similarly, on national forests, the top 10 percent control 49 percent of
the livestock. Many of the largest are grazing associations in the Dakotas,
Wyoming and Colorado, made up of family ranchers. Others are corporate
entities such as Idaho billionaire J.R. Simplot, media mogul Ted Turner or
Hunt Oil Co. of Dallas.

Why do wealthy interests run cattle at all?

Some executives use ranches to meet with major clients. Companies also buy
ranches for water or mineral rights, and raise beef to offset expenses. For
some rich Americans, ranches are status symbols and cows are part of the
image. Others are simply in the beef business.

Defenders say it doesn't matter if corporations dominate public land.

"Yes, they make a lot of money selling computers or beer or potatoes, but
they're still running the same cattle, and they still employ the same
number of cowboys and ranch hands," said Jason Campbell, federal-lands
director for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, in Washington, D.C.
"They are supporting mainstream businesses in places like rural Wyoming and
Colorado and Montana."

Reform, they say, would burden an industry already challenged by low beef
prices, environmental lawsuits and foreign competition. And, some contend,
it would threaten rural banks that carry loans pegged to ranchers' grazing

The red ink runs deep, however, to keep cows on the public's range.

Last year, the forest service and the BLM lost more than twice as much
money on grazing programs as they spent to restore endangered species.
Together, the agencies lost $94 million on grazing, spending $116 million
and taking in only $22 million in fees. Under another program, known as
Wildlife Services, the U.S. Department of Agriculture spent $14.6 million
more in state and federal funds to kill coyotes, mountain lions and other
predators for Western ranchers.

It's not as if Americans need the meat. Only 3.8 percent of the nation's
beef cattle graze on federal lands, according to the Department of
Agriculture. The rest live on private ranches, mostly in Texas, Oklahoma,
Nebraska and the Dakotas.

Reform has been slow. Few politicians want to take on the West's ultimate
hero, the cowboy. Ironically, the small ranchers he represents have a tiny
piece of the public range. The Mercury News found that the bottom 50
percent of grazing permit holders on national forests control 3 percent of
the livestock; on BLM land, the bottom 50 percent control just 7 percent.

Six years ago, the Clinton administration launched attempts at change. Some
members of Congress also have made futile efforts. While some new
environmental protections have been put in place, much has stayed the same.


The fee ranchers pay to graze livestock on federal land is lower than at
any time since 1975, set at $1.35 per cow per month, far below the current
market average of $11.10 on private land in the 11 westernmost states.

Under a "use it or lose it" permit system, a small group of ranchers enjoys
a monopoly on federal lands, as they have for decades. Even when hunters,
fishermen or environmentalists have offered to outbid cattle operators and
remove cows, a 1934 law prohibits it.

Despite the Clinton administration's promises to better balance wildlife,
recreation and grazing, the number of cattle and sheep roaming federal
lands has changed little since the Reagan presidency. "One very small,
politically powerful industry is destroying our land," said John Horning,
director of watershed protection for Forest Guardians, a Santa Fe
environmental group. "But the salt in the wound is that we're paying them
to do it."

French-fry billionaire
Idaho tycoon has access to millions of U.S. acres

The king of public-lands grazing is an Idaho billionaire who provides half
the french fries for McDonald's restaurants nationwide.

John "J.R." Simplot, 90, is listed on the Forbes 400 list with a net worth
of $3.6 billion. Ranked by cattle numbers, he reigns as the largest
operator on BLM lands in the United States. Simplot controls permits to
graze on at least 1.9 million acres of BLM land -- an area six times the
size of Los Angeles -- mostly in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon.

Simplot may be the only American to have made a billion dollars in both
19th-century and 21st-century businesses.

His holdings include food processing, fertilizer and other divisions making
up the J.R. Simplot Co., a private company based in Boise. Simplot also was
an early investor in Micron Technology -- his family and companies control
12 percent of its stock, worth $2.3 billion.

Tom Basabe, 47, president of Simplot Livestock Co., based in Grand View,
Idaho, said the company takes good care of public lands. "We make our
living off the land," he said. "We would be very foolish and shortsighted
if we abused it."

Government already imposes too much paperwork and too many regulations,
Basabe said, and with Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and the Clinton
administration, the bureaucracy has worsened.

On this day there are 100,000 cows just outside Basabe's office on
Simplot's Grand View feedlot, the largest west of the Mississippi. Visitors
can smell it three miles away.

In long rows of dirt pens and feeding troughs, the cows await shipment to
slaughterhouses in Utah and Idaho. Some meat will be sent to Japan.

Basabe says big operators should continue to pay the same grazing fee as
small family ranchers.

"Are you going to charge two prices for a loaf of bread?" he said. "It's

Chuck Jones, Simplot's public lands manager, said the company's cattle also
reduce invasive plants and fire danger. And Simplot cowboys patrol vast
open areas.

"We'll never apologize for being the biggest," he said. "We admire Mr.
Simplot for being an American success story."

Trail to cattle country
Why ranchers pay $1.35 a month per cow
There are few places cattle have not penetrated.

Introduced from Europe 500 years ago, cows today graze Southwest deserts.
They wander red rock canyons of Utah and evergreen forests from the Sierra
Nevada to the Rocky Mountains.

The basic grazing arrangement seems simple enough. Ranchers obtain 10-year
permits for large blocks of public land known as allotments. The only
requirement is a private ranch and livestock such as cattle, sheep or
horses. Permits often stay in families for generations.

But the formula that establishes grazing fees is a complicated one.
Factoring in beef prices and other costs, Uncle Sam charges ranchers $1.35
a month for each cow and calf.

That's 87 percent lower than the average rate of $11.10 that ranchers
charge each other to graze private property in the 11 westernmost states.
Some places in Santa Clara County charge $15.

Critics, who like to point out it costs more to feed a hamster than the
federal government charges to feed a 1,000-pound cow, say the fee is a
scandal. Some suggest it be quadrupled to ensure the government at least
breaks even.

"Clearly, taxpayers are not getting their money's worth," said John
Berthoud, president of the National Taxpayers Union.

Defenders counter that the fee simply reflects drops in beef prices and
that few cowboys get rich.

"We are almost in a life-and-death situation here," said Caren Cowen,
executive secretary of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association. "It's
getting tough to be a cowboy."

Many ranchers say it's wrong to compare fees on private land -- where
fencing, water tanks, veterinary help and other amenities are provided --
with public land, where they are not.

"You dump your cattle off and a guy takes care of 'em for you. He doctors
them, feeds them and rides them. You just pick them up in the fall," said
Dave Nelson, former manager at the Mountain Springs Ranch near Sun Valley,
Idaho. The 14,000-acre spread was owned for 25 years by computer pioneers
David Packard and Bill Hewlett until their families sold recently to
Hewlett's daughter, Mary Hewlett Jaffe.

Ranchers don't have much choice, Nelson noted; in many Western states, more
than half the land is owned by the U.S. government. Also, because it's
public land, hikers, hunters and anyone else can wander among federal
pastures, occasionally causing mischief.

"If I could rent pasture at $12 to $14 a month on private lands, I'd do
it," he said. "It's like having a motel room with the door not locked.
People get out there and cause problems, they cut your fences."

But nearly every state in the West charges more to graze state-owned lands
than the federal government. Oklahoma, for example, charges up to $10.80.
Montana charges $4.40 a month for lands, most adjacent to federal property.

Even some cowboys call the fee too low. Most live in the Great Plains,
where nearly all land is private.

"We consider it to be an unfair subsidy," said Scott Dewald, executive vice
president of the Oklahoma Cattlemen's Association. "The fee should be based
on public auctions, high bidder takes it."

The $1.35 isn't the only subsidy.

Half that fee is given back to the ranchers as "range betterment funds" to
pay for fences, water tanks and other equipment. When Anheuser-Busch cows
are walking along a barbed wire fence in the Sierra wilderness, for
example, the likelihood is tax money paid for it.

Some people argue that in some cases, the choice is cows or condos.

The ranching industry, top government officials and even the Nature
Conservancy warn that if fees are raised to make corporations pay more,
small operators will go bankrupt and real estate speculators will carve up
the empty private ranches.

"What are the alternatives?" said Mike Dombeck, chief of the U.S. Forest
Service. "Are we better off with subdivisions? I think its in everybody's
best interests to try to maintain these large unfragmented tracts of land."

While cowboys dominate the mythology of the West, public-lands ranchers are
a rounding error in the mathematics of the cattle business. They make up
just 2 percent of America's 1.1 million cattle operators, according to the
U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Yet the mythology continues.

Wyoming has a cowboy on its license plates. Yet Florida has more beef
cattle. Nevada holds a cowboy poetry festival, but has half as many beef
cattle as Louisiana.

And so on across the West.

The reason? Water.

It is easier to raise livestock in the East, where water and grass are
plentiful, than in the arid West. A cow in the East can live on 2 acres. In
the West, each needs up to 100 acres to find enough to eat.

Cattle-industry leaders say that even though public-lands ranchers provide
a tiny amount of America's food, they are crucial to rural areas.

"Sure, it becomes a lesser issue when you frame it in the national
context," said Campbell, of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "But
if you go into some of these small counties, you quickly realize that if a
lot of those ranchers didn't have access to federal lands, they wouldn't be

Their importance may be more legend than fact, however.

Power, the Montana economist, concluded in a 1996 book that only 17,989
jobs in 11 Western states, or 0.06 percent of total employment, were due to
federal grazing.

"We have cowboy socialism," said Power. "It's a romantically based, phony
attempt to protect something from the past that no longer exists."

Hilton's second empire Hotel chairman uses vast tracts for herds Among the
most well-heeled cowboys is Barron Hilton.

Hilton, 70, is chairman of the Hilton Hotel empire and has a net worth
estimated at $500 million. An avid fly fisherman and hunter, he owns one of
the trophy properties of the West, the Flying M Ranch, about 50 miles east
of Carson City, Nev.

The ranch sprawls over 450,000 acres, made up of private property and huge
stretches of BLM land and Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. Hilton holds
permits to graze 3,200 cattle all the way across the California line,
nearly to Mono Lake.

He bought the ranch in 1969 for fishing, hunting, tennis and skeet
shooting, said Steve Hilton, Barron Hilton's son, and more recently has
used it for soaring and gliding contests. Running cattle helps offset
operating costs, said Steve Hilton.

One family adviser acknowledged the $1.35 fee is a pretty good deal.

"Yeah, I think it is too low," said Don Hubbs, chairman of the Hilton
Foundation in Los Angeles, and a rancher himself. "I think the fees could
be raised. But a lot of this government land isn't as good as the private

Hubbs said public-lands cowboys have an undeserved reputation.

"The public has been made to believe that ranchers are anti-environmental,"
he said. "In a few instances, maybe that's true, but in the vast majority
it's not. The true ranchers know that once you desecrate the land, you
don't have the production from your cattle."

Where damage is done
Stewardship hasn't ended destruction

Some environmental groups have argued since the 1980s that all cattle
should be removed from public lands because of overgrazing.

Cowboys counter that most harm was inflicted more than 50 years ago. Back
then, agricultural textbooks called streams "sacrifice zones," and many
ranchers turned wilderness areas into de facto feedlots.

Today, ranchers say, they are doing a better job of stewardship.

Both sides are right.

A sweeping study by the Department of the Interior in 1994 concluded that
although overgrazing of "uplands" -- pastures, deserts and meadows -- has
fallen in recent decades, stream areas continue to suffer severe damage
from grazing.

"Cattle have been the most widespread, destructive influence on the streams
and rivers of the West," said Robert Ohmart, professor of biology at
Arizona State University. "They have just beat places to hell."

Small family operators appear to be taking better care of the public's land
than the largest ranchers. The Mercury News found that 46 percent of the
allotments rented by the 20 largest BLM permit holders are classified as
"improve" -- unsatisfactory conditions in sensitive areas. In contrast, the
BLM assigned that grade to only 27 percent of all its allotments.

Not all grazing is harmful. In select areas, it can limit the spread of
non-native plants, helping wildlife. But a 1994 report by forest service
biologists found grazing to be the main reason species are put on the
endangered list in the Southwest.

Again, it all comes down to water.

Much of the region receives less than 10 inches of rain a year. Streams
make up 1 percent of the landscape in the 11 Western states, yet 70 to 80
percent of plants and animals depend on them for survival.

Unlike elk or bison, which eat and roam, cows love to congregate in
streams, especially in summer. If they are not herded or fenced out, they
can wipe out fish and birds.

The news isn't all bad. Tougher rules from the Clinton administration have
resulted in gradual improvements. In 1995, 27 percent of BLM streams were
classified in "proper functioning condition," by the agency's scientists.
By 1998, that total had risen to 36 percent.

Wayne Elmore, an Oregon ecologist who heads the federal government's
streams team, has conducted studies showing that streams and wildlife can
recover, but usually if cows are removed for five years or more. After
plants grow back, cows must graze only part of the year, he argues.

"We need better management," said Elmore, "not fewer numbers."

Compounding the problem is a lack of information.

Unlike the BLM, the forest service has no national database listing stream
conditions, cattle locations or the names of people with grazing permits.
That has made it nearly impossible to track trends. The Mercury News
combined computer data from the agency's six Western regions to rank permit

"We recognize that there are deficiencies in the databases. We are working
on that," said the forest service's Dombeck, who supports higher fees and
tougher environmental rules. "It's a few years away."

War in the courts
Suits regain territory for endangered species

If anyone is going to kick cows off public lands, it may be
environmentalist John Horning and his lawyers.

On a warm fall day, Horning is zooming through western New Mexico. Cibola
and Catron counties are the kind of places where locals stock ammo for Y2K
and pick-up trucks sport bumper stickers like "Sierra Club: Hike to Hell."
Billboards advertise "custom slaughter and taxidermy."

There is boundless space, with hawks flying over tin-roofed houses and hazy
hills 50 miles in the distance distorted by rising heat.

Near the Arizona border, Horning wanders the San Francisco River, a scenic
watercourse through the Gila National Forest.

"All of this area we're walking on should be covered with cottonwood
trees," he said. "But it's not. Because of overgrazing, it will take 60 to
80 years for this to come back."

Horning's employer, the Forest Guardians, has made its mark here.

In a landmark decision last year, the government agreed to remove cattle
from stream areas on 57 grazing allotments on the Gila and
Apache-Sitgreaves national forests in response to a lawsuit from Forest
Guardians and other environmentalists. The suit alleged that grazing drove
two fish -- the loach minnow and the spikedace -- nearly to extinction and
harmed an endangered songbird, the willow flycatcher.

Taking on an icon
Politicians, confusion stall significant change
Change has come slowly. Why?

Grazing damage is out of sight and mind for most Americans. The economics
are confusing. Cowboys are popular. Also, banks use grazing permits as
collateral; if the system changes dramatically, thousands of ranches plunge
in value. Many bankers quietly lobby against change.

"If in the middle of a loan we have an increase in grazing fees, then that
dips into a rancher's ability to repay his loan," said John Anderson, vice
president of the New Mexico Bankers Association.

Backed by a sympathetic constituency on an issue most Americans don't
comprehend, a handful of Western senators, led by Sen. Pete Domenici,
R-N.M., have been able to block efforts to significantly raise grazing fees.

Domenici declined repeated requests for an interview.

However, he has cited the family rancher in defending the status quo, even
though 98 percent of U.S. ranchers don't have public-lands permits. In
1996, he told the Albuquerque Journal: "It's about whether you want to have
any more cowboys around the West or if you want them all to come from

A Bay Area Democrat, U.S. Rep. George Miller of Martinez, has led efforts
for nearly a decade to raise fees and tighten environmental rules. Little
has changed.

"You run into a bipartisan bloc of Western senators that decide they are
going to fight for this as hard as they fight for anything," Miller said.
"They are fighting for an old, irresponsible use of land."

When President Clinton began his first term in 1993, he unveiled plans to
reform mining, logging and grazing practices on public lands. He said the
changes would save $1 billion over five years. Yet:

Clinton quickly dropped a plan to raise grazing fees in March 1993 when
five Democratic lawmakers joined leading Western Republicans in protest.
Clinton decided that because of the rift, the five might not vote for his
economic plan. Critics called it a cave-in.

"Ultimately, it was the president's call. The economic plan was the last
thing we wanted to go down in flames," said former White House Chief of
Staff Leon Panetta, who added he still feels that "taxpayers are not
getting a fair return here."

The same year, Interior chief Babbitt tried to raise fees to $4.28 per cow
a month, but Domenici blocked it with a filibuster. After the GOP won
Congress in 1994, the administration gave up on fees.

When BLM and national forests are combined, the overall livestock total has
fallen just 1.5 percent since 1988. Critics say rural federal officials
rarely remove cattle to restore the environment because of local backlash.
"The Clinton administration promised great strides; what we ended up seeing
was a lot of baby steps," said Cathy Carlson, a grazing activist with the
National Wildlife Federation in Boulder, Colo.

Today, Babbitt defends the administration's efforts.

He points out that he has put rules in place under an initiative called
"Rangeland Reform '94" to keep cattle out of streams and to increase public
participation in regional range-advisory councils.

"We took our best shot," Babbitt said. "We have made some important
progress. But there aren't any magical breakthroughs. Every range reform of
the past 100 years has played out amid intense controversy, but we are
gradually making our way."

Some officials are more blunt.

"It's frustrating," said Jim Baca, a former BLM director whom Babbitt
forced out in 1994 after run-ins with Western leaders. "It seems like
nothing has changed."

Baca, now mayor of Albuquerque, said high-tech jobs, such as the new Intel
Corp. plant near Albuquerque, provide far more economic power to the West
than ranching. But old habits die hard, he said.

"When I was BLM director, if I wanted to move 10 cows in Wyoming, senators
would get involved," he said. "I still marvel at it."

Even Babbitt's Rangeland Reform is in jeopardy. A lawsuit filed by the
Public Lands Council, a ranching group, would overturn it. Last month, the
U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the key case.

So how does Uncle Sam bring back the environment without bankrupting family

One idea is to buy out public-lands cowboys. The Grand Canyon Trust, an
Arizona environmental group, recently removed cattle from 132 miles of
streams in Utah's new Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument by paying
five families to drop grazing permits.

Terms were not released, but the trust said the buyout cost between
$215,000 and $540,000.

Meanwhile, action by the GOP-led Congress to make corporate ranchers pay
more is considered a political impossibility. Clinton could raise fees by
executive order, but administration sources say he has decided the fight
isn't worth it.

And the issue hasn't surfaced in the 2000 presidential campaign.

"Most people just don't care," said a Clinton administration source who
requested anonymity. "It was so long and tiring and taxing before, I just
don't know if we're going to see any more reform efforts. There's no upside
to it. We used a ton of political chits and got nothing."

Reprinted under the Fair Use doctrine 
of international copyright law.
           Tsonkwadiyonrat (We are ONE Spirit)
                      Unenh onhwa' Awayaton

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