Follow the Money

A Spatial History of In-Lieu Programs for Western Federal Lands

Joseph E Taylor III, Erik Steiner, Krista Fryauff, Celena Allen, Alex Sherman, Zephyr Frank

The Taylor Grazing Act extended federal regulation to the remaining open federal lands in 1934 and 1936

The TGA was more effective at resolving social conflicts than managing grass

Section 3 county payments were cut from 50% to 12.5% in 1947

Federal grazing areas have
steadily dwindled since the 1950s

Proponents and opponents of the BLM both over-simplify the relationship between federal agencies and local governments (link)

Taylor Grazing Act Section 3 Payments

The Bureau of Land Management controls 270 million acres, much of which is used for grazing and regulated by Section 3 of the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, which sends a portion of permit revenues to western counties.

By the mid-1920s presidents and Congress had closed much of the federal domain to settlement to protect federal claims to the timber, coal, oil, and gas wealth of the unsettled West. It had also retained all remaining subsurface mineral rights via the 1916 Stock-Raising Homestead Act (PL 64-290), but nearly 300 million acres remained open to settlement under the homesteading acts. Most of these lands were of relatively low value. They were almost exclusively in the most arid parts of the West, the historical open ranges. By the mid-1920s, though, range conditions had badly deteriorated due to intense grazing and drought. Contests among cattle and sheep raisers also still flared into violence because of the absence of state regulations. All but the most oblivious Americans recognized these dire problems. It nevertheless took Congress another decade to address these problems systemically.

The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 (PL 73-482) and a follow-up bill in 1936 (PL 74-827) set aside 142 million acres of the remaining, unsettled lands of the American West. It also created a new agency called the Grazing Bureau to manage federal ranges primarily for grazing interests. The TGA had three stated goals: “to stop injury” from overgrazing, “to provide for their orderly use,” and “to stabilize the livestock industry.” It also created two ways to manage the lands. Based on a small experiment in Montana called the Mizpah-Pumpkin Creek Grazing District (PL 70-280), Section 3 institutionalized what is now called co-management, what the bill’s author later called “democracy on the range,” by authorizing ranchers to form grazing districts with local advisory boards. The boards worked with Grazing Service personnel to apportion permits, establish fees, and delimit herds. For areas outside grazing districts, Section 15 authorized the Grazing Bureau to lease parcels of no less than 640 acres (one section or square mile) to ranchers with contiguous property. In practice, Section 15 leases operated on isolated tracts that could not be merged with a grazing district, or in areas, especially in Nevada and Arizona, where ranchers balked at forming districts. They represent, in other words, some of the most physically and politically isolated and isolationist sections of the American West.

Much has been written about the TGA’s social, cultural, and ecological consequences. The Act did succeed in bringing order to the ranges, at last ending a long era of violent, extralegal rule. It also, for a time, helped to stabilize the grazing industry, although that was not the same thing as quelling western desires to eliminate federal control. The Act’s ecological goals were far more elusive, partly because grazers continually pressed for higher herd numbers and partly because range science was in its infancy and the Grazing Bureau lacked an adequate research capacity. By contrast, very little attention has been paid to the political economy of these lands, especially their impact on local and state governance.

From the beginning Taylor Grazing Act revenues have been apportioned for three interests: to bolster the federal Treasury, to fund range rehabilitation programs, and to offset lost tax dollars to western counties. The 1934 act made no distinction between Section 3 and Section 15 receipts: 25 percent of revenues went to the Treasury, 25 percent to a special fund controlled by the Secretary of the Interior for range improvement, and 50 percent to the states to benefit grazing counties. After the Reorganization Act of 1945 (79-263) and Reorganization Plan No. 3 of 1946, however, the Department of Interior merged the Grazing Bureau and General Land Office into a new agency called the Bureau of Land Management, now responsible for managing 270 million acres, nearly all of which is in the eleven western states and Alaska. The next year Congress amended the TGA by reducing Section 3 in-lieu payments to 12.5 percent. Section 15 payments remained at 50 percent, and these ratios continue to this day.

During the postwar era political debates over the BLM lands have largely focused on grazing fees. Critics have long wanted to equalize public and private grasslands fees. Ranchers have largely succeeded in blocking these efforts. Lower fees on public ranges partly reflects the diminished nutritional quality and seasonal availability of public lands grasses, and it partly reflects the marginal market condition of these lands, including their distance to markets and transportation costs. This compensatory fee structure has aided western grazers, but it has also ensured that in-lieu payments to counties from permit and leasing revenues have not kept up with inflation. Revenues further shrank as the Department of Defense and Department of Energy withdrew sizable chunks of Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Washington for military purposes and nuclear research. Grazing access also eroded due to federal laws. In 1964, Congress directed (PL 88-607) the Secretary of Interior to classify and reallocate BLM lands for multiple use, including recreational and environmental interests. In 1971, Congress mandated (PL 92-195) more livestock reductions to accommodate wild horse and burro populations. In 1976, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (PL 94-579) ended homesteading and prioritized non grazing uses, while the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (PL 91-190), Endangered Species Act of 1973 (PL 92-205), and Public Rangelands Improvement Act of 1978 (PL 95-514) required the BLM to file environmental impact statements for all management actions and to exclude grazing from more lands to protect native species and habitats.

The impact of range reductions on the western livestock industry is well documented. Accounts of these consequences vary from lurid portrayals of working-class families besieged by federal tyranny to caricatures of “welfare cowboys” who are dependent on government subsidies. Lost in this heated rhetoric is the story of how federal regulation affects local governments. Some parts of the rural West were profoundly alienated by the reallocation of BLM lands for non-revenue generating purposes. There have been many reasons why rural westerners have turned against the federal government, but one neglected issue is how changes in federal land management policies have undermined the ability of local governments to support social services.



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