NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Environmental Lawsuits Pursue Ranchers Grazing Public Lands

November 11, 2002

An environmental group calling itself the Forest Guardians has a mission to clear every head of cattle off the 265 million acres of land the U.S. government owns in 11 western states. They are doing so by suing under the Endangered Species Act or other federal laws -- claiming the government is misusing the land by threatening hundreds of varieties of plants and dozens of species of animals.

When they win, the number of cows a rancher is permitted to graze is cut. The most controversial tactic they use is to single out and attack the most financially vulnerable ranchers. According to the Guardian anti-grazing coordinator, "If some ranchers go out of business along the way, so be it."

  • About 25,000 ranchers have grazing permits in the West, where upward of three million cows -- or about 10 percent of America's beef cattle -- feed on land owned by the U.S. government.
  • Grazing fees the government charges are admittedly low -- in some cases perhaps only 10 percent of the going rate for grazing rights on private lands.
  • By their own estimates, the Guardians have managed to clear 5,000 cows off two million acres managed by the U.S. Forest Service -- winning or settling some 18 lawsuits, with dozens more pending.
  • The Forest Service faults the Guardians for exaggerating the damage cattle do to the environment -- pointing out that herds of elk probably do as much or more damage to pastureland as livestock.

Even mainstream environmental groups take issue with their harsh tactics, which have pushed some small-time ranchers to the brink of bankruptcy.

Source: Jim Carlton, "In the Old West, a Tense Showdown Over Federal Lands," Wall Street Journal, November 11, 2002.

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