GAO: Taxpayers Heavily Subsidizing Ranching on Public Lands, Environmental Damage Unclear Due to Poor Recordkeeping

Washington, D.C. – A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released today in response to a request by Ranking Member Raúl M. Grijalva reveals the extent of federal ranching subsidies on public land and highlights major data gaps in tracking unauthorized public lands grazing. The report, entitled Unauthorized Grazing: Actions Needed to Improve Tracking and Deterrence Efforts, offers a detailed look at permitted and unpermitted grazing on the approximately 440 million acres of public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS). The full report is available at http://bit.ly/29wkYlv.

The report highlights the need for greater enforcement of financial penalties for grazing violations and increased data collection on potential serial violators. It also clearly shows that federal land management agencies heavily subsidize ranchers by leasing federal land well below market value – an assessment strongly at odds with repeated right-wing claims of federal neglect of Western ranchers.

According to the report, “In grazing year 2016, BLM charged ranchers $2.11 per animal unit month for horses/cattle, and $0.42 for sheep and goats; the Forest Service charged the same rates per head month. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, based on the average private grazing land lease rate per animal unit month, the commercial value of forage in western states ranged from $9 to $39 in forage year 2016.”

The findings stand in sharp contrast to conservative complaints about public lands ranching. At a Utah forum on federal land management agencies convened by Chairman Bishop in January, Randy Parker of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation claimed, “We are seeing the systematic dismantling of ranchers’ ability to graze their livestock.”

The new report finds that, contrary to right-wing descriptions of federal conservation officials as overbearing, agencies seldom enforce public lands grazing laws and often do not document the violations they observe: “[A]gency staff told GAO that they handle most incidents [of unauthorized grazing] informally – their preferred practice – and do not record them in databases or consistently in paper files, because, in part, they do not consider it a priority. As a result, the agencies have incomplete information on the extent of unauthorized grazing. . . . [M]ost of the Forest Service staff GAO interviewed said that unauthorized grazing penalties are too low to act as an effective deterrent.”

These findings echo GAO’s previous public lands grazing report, published in 1990: “Because many grazing areas are inspected infrequently or not at all during the year, offenders are not likely to be detected. When offenders are detected, BLM frequently exacts no penalties and, for the more serious violations, seldom assesses the minimum penalties its own regulations require. As a result, grazing trespass is not adequately deterred, which can lead to degradation of public rangelands, among other things.”

Grijalva said today that federal agencies’ first responsibility is to ensure the public receives a fair return for the use of public land. Right-wing anti-government rhetoric, he said, should not prevent agencies from enforcing laws written to protect the environment and economy of Western states.

“We know we’re leasing public land at well below market value,” Grijalva said. “What we don’t know nearly enough about is the extent or impact of unauthorized grazing on public lands. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management need to bring grazing fees in line with the modern economy and take illegal use of public lands more seriously going forward.”

Key Findings from the Report

  • In some instances, BLM and USFS staff have deprioritized identifying or taking action against unauthorized grazing because of threats and intimidation  by a small group of ranchers who willfully conduct unlawful grazing and refuse to accept federal authority.  Agency personnel interviewed for the report cited safety concerns as a deterrent to enforcing penalties for unauthorized grazing.
  • Fees for grazing on federal land are set far below those on private and state land. In fiscal year 2016, BLM charged $2.11 per animal unit month for horses and cattle even as the market value of forage in western states ranged from $9 to $39.
  • Paying a penalty for unauthorized grazing is less expensive than purchasing forage from a non-federal source. In some cases, the penalty is so low that it may actually incentivize more unauthorized grazing.
  • Only a portion of proceeds from monetary penalties go towards restoring habitats damaged by unauthorized grazing.
  • In fiscal year 2015, Congress appropriated $79 million for the BLM rangeland management program. Approximately $36 million of that was spent to administer livestock grazing, yet the agency only collected $14.5 million in grazing fees during that period, much of which was distributed to state and local governments.
  • Despite early recommendations to improve tracking and reporting requirements, most incidents of unauthorized grazing are resolved through an informal resolution with no formal recordkeeping. This results in no monetary or criminal penalties and makes it difficult to identify repeat offenders. It also violates agency regulations, which, in the case of BLM, require written notification of all potential incidents of unauthorized grazing. Because of underreporting of violations and the informal nature of most incident resolutions, the extent of unauthorized grazing is unknown.
  • Joint BLM/USFS guidance details the detrimental effects of unauthorized grazing in riparian areas. Agency personnel indicated to GAO that unauthorized grazing, under circumstances such as drought, can significantly damage ecosystem health. Lack of data on unauthorized grazing makes assessing damage to sensitive ecosystems very difficult.

Press Contact

Media Contact: Adam Sarvana

(202) 225-6065 or (202) 578-6626