Cattle ranchers got a break this week. Their grazing fees on public lands just dropped to the lowest amount allowed under federal law. The average savings per rancher will be just $32 a year, but the decision is still controversial.
Bob Skinner starts up his all-terrain vehicle that he uses to get around his remote ranch near the Idaho/Oregon border. It’s calving season, so several times a day he drives his land to check for newborn calfs.
“There’s a brand new one,” says Skinner, pointing to a rust-colored calf on wobbly legs, right next to its mother. The cow assumes a protective stance as Skinner comes near. The calf seems to be in good shape, so Skinner zooms over the rocky sagebrush landscape to look for the next one.
In a few months, Skinner will turn all his cows and calves out to eat grass on public lands. He’s happy about the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service decision to lower grazing fees to $1.35 an "animal unit month." That’s the price for grazing one horse, five goats, five sheep or for Skinner — one cow and her calf.
“It’s not one of our big expenses,” says Skinner, who is also president of the cattlemen’s advocacy group the Public Lands Council. “We have big expenses running on public lands.”
Things like gas, building materials and labor costs make up those expenses.
Skinner compares leasing grazing acres from the government to being a renter whose landlord expects you to pay for any maintenance and repairs.
“The government does nothing," says Skinner. "I mean nothing."
Every spring, Skinner and his crews spend days repairing barbed wire fences that were downed over the winter. He’s also responsible for maintaining the pipeline that transports water to his cows over the remote rangeland. Sometimes, he repairs four or five pipeline breaks a day. All those costs add up, and are the rancher’s responsibility.
And then there’s the volatility in the beef market, depending on what’s going on with say, tariffs.
Brian Lombard is with the BLM. He says the government takes current market conditions into account when calculating the fee. His agency looks at things like fluctuations in beef prices and the general costs of livestock production.
“Generally these increases and decreases they have the most influence on what happens with the grazing fee,” says Lombard.
And Lombard argues the fee reduction might even encourage more people to apply for grazing permits. That would mean more money for the program.
“I think it’s going to increase participation,” says Lombard. “We currently have 18,000 leasing permits. I would suspect that that’s probably going to go up next year as a result of this."
That idea terrifies Scott Lake with the nonprofit conservation group Western Watersheds Project.
Lake says all this grazing on public lands has ecological consequences.
"First and foremost is the cost to the land itself, and the ecological services and recreational values we’re sacrificing in order to sustain public lands grazing," says Lake.
Environmentalists like Lake want to see the government raise fees for ranchers and put those dollars toward habitat improvements.
Under the Trump Administration, grazing fees have hit rock bottom. The $1.35 minimum was set by executive order by former President Ronald Reagan in 1986.
“It’s a raw deal for the taxpayers," says Lake. "The grazing program doesn’t even recoup the money that the BLM spends on it.”
Neil Rimbey can confirm that. He’s a a range economist and a professor emeritus with the University of Idaho.
“It’s not a good deal for the government at all,” says Rimbey.
The BLM’s rangeland management program costs more than it brings in — about $63 million more, according to the agency. So if it’s not a good deal for government, what about ranchers? Are they getting a good deal here?
“I’ll give you the typical economist’s answer: It depends,” says Rimbey.
Rimbey says each rancher’s profit margin depends in part on how much money and time they have to devote to upkeep.
For Rancher Bob Skinner that’s a lot. But he thinks it’s worth it for him — and the country.
“Name me one government program that’s not a loss,” says Skinner. “Education, transportation. Name me one.”
The BLM and the Forest Service manage more than 441 million acres of public land — mostly in 12 Western states.
This is the second time grazing fees have dropped under the Trump Administration. The new fees go into effect March 1.
Find reporter Amanda Peacher on Twitter @amandapeacher.
Copyright 2019 Boise State Public Radio
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.