Ranchers greet high court grazing ruling with a yawn

Little will change in Routt County since most permits are for Forest Service land

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The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling last week that upheld a rangeland reform initiative is not expected to change the way the Bureau of Land Management issues its grazing permits. But it could change the way ranchers view the land they use for grazing.

The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit in which agricultural advocates claimed the language of a 1995 reform initiative contradicted the 1938 Taylor Grazing Act. That act states that grazing permitees have preference when decisions are made about who can lease land managed by the Department of the Interior. Agricultural producers said the act makes it clear that they should have first rights to the land.

The justices didn't see it that way and unanimously ruled in support of the initiative. The reform initiative says ranchers can't automatically have their grazing permits renewed, other people are eligible for permits on the land and the government owns any improvements made on the land, such as wells or fences.

Still, the ruling won't lead to radical changes in the way the land is managed, said BLM field manager John Husband.

"I don't see it as a big impact," he said of the reform initiative.

Instead, Husband said, the ruling gave legal backing to how the BLM already views grazing permits, which is that they are not given in perpetuity to one user. Pointing to the Taylor Grazing Act, ranchers have argued they have a right to the grazing land. But Husband said the act doesn't provide a guarantee for lessees.

"It didn't say (the permits) were permanent," he said.

The high court also upheld the government's ability to adjust grazing levels on the land, which it always has done, Husband said.

"I just don't see the difference," he said.

The BLM, which is a branch of the Department of Interior, leases 1.3 million acres of land for grazing in Moffat and Routt County. About 95 percent of the permitted acreage is in Moffat County.

"Most of Routt County is private," Husband said.

There are 84 permitees on U.S. Forest Service land in the Routt/Medicine Bow National Forest, but since the agency is not a branch of the Department of Interior, those lessees won't be affected by the ruling.

"It's business as usual," Forest Service spokeswoman Denise Germann said.

However, what won't be business as usual is the way ranchers view their permitted land.

Since the government now owns any improvements made on the land, ranchers will be discouraged from putting any of their own money into upkeep.

"The motivation towards good ranch management might be gone because they don't feel they have ownership," Elk River rancher Jay Fetcher said. In addition to his own property, Fetcher runs cattle on a small piece of land he leases from the government, but he doesn't expect the ruling to impact his operation.

Advocates of the ruling say taking away ranchers' sense of ownership is exactly what needed to be done.

"Ranchers have been trying to claim for decades that grazing is a right, not a privilege," said John Horning, spokesman for the conservation organization Forest Guardians.

"In the past," Horning contended, "the livestock community has been arrogant about their right to use public lands."

The ruling is viewed as a victory for environmentalists, who want to reduce the amount of grazing on public land because they fear it is destructive to the environment, Horning said.

The next step for the environmentalists is to apply for BLM permits in hopes of freeing the land from grazing.

Ranchers in other parts of the country fear the ruling will discourage banks from giving a loan to a rancher who uses the grazing permits as collateral.

"They do have value to them," Vectra Bank loan officer Irlan Neas, adding that if the permits can't be transferred or renewed, their value would be decreased.

To reach Doug Crowl call 871-4206 or e-mail dcrowl@amigo.net

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