Ken Salazar's "squeeze" budget still subsidizes grazing on public lands

In these lean times, last week Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar proposed slashing costs and hiking a range of user fees -- everything from the cost of a federal stamp for duck hunting to oil and gas drilling permits -- to make ends meet at his agency. But one bit of government welfare is considered too precious to scrap: the heavily subsidized cost of grazing private livestock on public land.

The Department of the Interior is a rarity among federal bureaucracies, an operation that actually brings into the U.S. Treasury more than its annual outlays. Last year the DOI generated $13.2 billion in receipts, mostly from leases and royalties on oil, gas, timber, minerals and other natural resources. (Even though the oil-and-gas royalties have been subject to frequent allegations of fraud and underreporting, as discussed in last month's cover story "Drilled, Baby, Drilled.")

When you take into account all those energy-related jobs, national park visitors, water projects and related ventures, DOI estimates that it contributes "about $363 billion to the nation's economic activity," according to this announcement of its 2013 budget request -- a decidedly modest $11.5 billion package, all things considered. But Secretary Salazar wants to use more of his funds to buy land for parks, memorials and wildlife refuges, drawing criticism from Republican lawmakers, who want to see more land opened up for energy development, as well as a budget that deals with the backlog of repairs and maintenance projects needed at America's existing parks.

The Salazar idea is that higher user fees and slashed expenses will help make new acquisitions possible. But one area that remains a loss leader has to do with the grazing fees imposed by the Bureau of Land Management; they're going up, too, but not nearly enough to cover the historic losses the government has sustained when dealing with the livestock industry.

Livestock, mostly cattle and sheep, make use of more than two-thirds of the BLM's vast holdings in the West. Ranchers pay $21 million a year for the privilege -- but the program costs $144 million to administer and has long been a target of environmentalists and wild-horse advocates, who claim the true impacts of overgrazing haven't been figured in the official cost analysis.

Under Salazar's proposed budget, the fee to graze a cow/calf pair or five head of sheep on BLM land would rise from $1.35 a month to $2.35. The cost of leasing comparable private land for grazing can rise to 10 times that amount or more. Less than 4 percent of the nation's cattle are estimated to use public lands, but it's been an inviolable bit of policy to keep the fees absurdly low. The last time a Secretary of the Interior tried to push through a substantial fee increase, back in the early days of the Clinton administration, it met fierce opposition from livestock producers and was promptly abandoned.

The Colorado Springs-based Cloud Foundation, which has long pushed for a more dramatic fee increase, says Salazar's proposal will do little to help the wild horses that compete with grazing interests for forage on public lands. "We continue to request a reduction in the destructive overgrazing of livestock on public lands and to allocate a fair share of forage for wild horses and other wildlife," says Ginger Kathrens, the foundation's executive director.

For more on Interior's troubled wild-horse program (another loss leader), check out our previous coverage.

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