Grazing Fees: An Overview and Current Issues

Grazing Fees:
An Overview and Current Issues
Carol Hardy Vincent
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
Charging fees for grazing private livestock on federal lands is a long-standing but
contentious practice. Generally, livestock producers who use federal lands want to keep
fees low, while conservation groups and others believe fees should be increased. The
formula for determining the grazing fee for lands managed by the Bureau of Land
Management and the Forest Service uses a base value adjusted annually by the lease
rates for grazing on private lands, beef cattle prices, and the cost of livestock production.
The collected fees are divided among the Treasury, states, and federal agencies. Fee
reform was attempted but not adopted in the 1990s. Current issues include instances of
grazing without paying fees, efforts to retire certain grazing permits, and a broad
approach to buy out grazing permittees. This report will be updated as needed.
Charging fees for grazing private livestock on federal lands is statutorily authorized
and has been the policy of the Forest Service (FS, Department of Agriculture) since 1906,
and of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM, Department of the Interior) since 1936.
Today, fees are charged for grazing on approximately 160 million acres of BLM land and
95 million acres of FS land basically under a fee formula established in the Public
Rangelands Improvement Act of 1978 (PRIA) and continued administratively.1
On BLM rangelands, in FY2006, there were 15,799 operators authorized to graze
livestock, and they held 17,880 grazing permits and leases. Under these permits and
leases, a maximum of 12,634,580 animal unit months (AUMs) of grazing could have been

1 P.L. 95-514, 92 Stat. 1803; 43 U.S.C. §§1901, 1905. Executive Order 12548, 51 Fed. Reg. 5985
(February 19, 1986). These authorities govern grazing on BLM and FS lands in 16 contiguous
western states, which is the focus of this report. Forest Service grasslands and “nonwestern”
states have different fees. In addition, grazing occurs on other federal lands, not required to be
governed by PRIA fees, including areas managed by the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife
Service, Dept. of Defense, and Dept. of Energy.

authorized for use. Instead, 7,536,412 AUMs were used. The remainder were not used
due to resource protection needs, forage depletion caused by drought or fire, and
economic and other factors. BLM defines an AUM, for fee purposes, as a month’s use
and occupancy of the range by one animal unit, which includes one yearling, one cow and
her calf, one horse, or 5 sheep or goats. On FS rangelands, in FY2005 (most recent
available), there were 7,039 livestock operators authorized to graze stock. A maximum
of 9,432,572 head-months (HD-MOs) of grazing were under permit; 6,806,797 HD-MOs
were authorized to graze. There were more than 8,000 grazing permits on FS lands as of
February 2008. The FS uses HD-MO as its unit of measurement for use and occupancy
of FS lands, similar to AUM. Hereafter AUM is used to cover both HD-MO and AUM.
The BLM and FS are charging a grazing fee of $1.35 per AUM from March 1, 2008,
through February 28, 2009. This is the lowest fee that can be charged. It is generally
lower than fees charged for grazing on other federal lands as well as on state and private
lands. A study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that other federal
agencies charged $0.29 to $112.50 per AUM in FY2004. While the BLM and FS use a
formula to set the grazing fee (see “The Fee Formula” below), most agencies charge a fee
based on competitive methods or a market price for forage. Some seek to recover the
costs of their grazing programs. State and private landowners generally seek market value
for grazing, with state fees ranging from $1.35 to $80 per AUM and private fees from $8
to $23 per AUM.2 The average monthly lease rate for grazing on private lands in 11
western states in 2006 was $15.10 per head.3
BLM and the FS typically spend far more managing their grazing programs than they
collect in grazing fees. For example, the GAO determined that in FY2004, the agencies
spent about $132.5 million on grazing management, comprised of $58.3 million for the
BLM and $74.2 million for the FS. These figures include expenditures for direct costs,
such as managing permits, as well as indirect costs, such as personnel. The agencies
collected $17.5 million, comprised of $11.8 million in BLM receipts and $5.7 million in
FS receipts.4 Receipts for both agencies have been relatively low in recent years,
apparently because western drought has contributed to reduced livestock grazing. Other
estimates of the cost of livestock grazing on federal lands are much higher. For instance,
a 2002 study by the Center for Biological Diversity estimated the federal cost of an array
of BLM, FS, and other agency programs that benefit grazing or compensate for impacts
of grazing at roughly $500 million annually. Together with the nonfederal cost, the total
cost of livestock grazing could be as high as $1 billion annually, according to the study.5
Grazing fees have been contentious since their introduction. Generally, livestock
producers who use federal lands want to keep fees low. They assert that federal fees are

2 U.S. Government Accountability Office, Livestock Grazing: Federal Expenditures and
Receipts Vary, Depending on the Agency and the Purpose of the Fee Charged, GAO-05-869
(Washington, DC: September 2005), p. 37-40.
3 U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, Agricultural Statistics 2007,
Table 9-48, at [].
4 GAO-05-869, p. 21-22 and p. 30-31.
5 A copy of the report, Assessing the Full Cost of the Federal Grazing Program, is available at
[ swcbd/Programs /grazi ng/Assessing_the_full_cost.pdf].

not comparable to fees for leasing private rangelands, because public lands often are less
productive; must be shared with other public users; and often lack water, fencing, or other
amenities thereby increasing operating costs. They fear that fee increases may force many
small and medium-sized ranchers out of business. Conservation groups generally assert
that low fees contribute to overgrazing and deteriorated range conditions. Critics assert
that low fees subsidize ranchers and contribute to budget shortfalls because federal fees
are lower than private grazing land lease rates and do not cover the costs of range
management. They further contend that, because part of the collected fees is used for
range improvements, higher fees could enhance the productive potential and
environmental quality of federal rangelands.
Current Grazing Fee Formula and Distribution of Receipts
The Fee Formula. The fee charged by the FS and BLM is based on the grazing
on federal rangelands of a specified number of animals for one month. PRIA establishes
a policy of charging a grazing fee that is “equitable” and prevents economic disruption
and harm to the western livestock industry. The law requires the Secretaries of
Agriculture and the Interior to set a fee annually that is the estimated economic value of
grazing to the livestock owner. The fee is to represent the fair market value of grazing,
beginning with a 1966 base value of $1.23 per AUM. This value is adjusted for three
factors based on costs in western states of (1) the rental charge for pasturing cattle on
private rangelands, (2) the sales price of beef cattle, and (3) the cost of livestock
production. Congress also established that the annual fee adjustment could not exceed

25% of the previous year’s fee.

PRIA required a seven-year trial (1979-1985) of the formula while the FS and BLM
undertook a study to help Congress determine a permanent fee or fee formula. President
Reagan issued Executive Order 12548 (February 14, 1986) to continue indefinitely the
PRIA fee formula, and established the minimum fee of $1.35 per AUM. Without that
requirement, the 2008 fee would have been below one dollar, due to a decrease in beef
cattle prices and an increase in production costs, according to the BLM and the FS. The
annual grazing fees since 1981, when the FS and BLM began charging the same fee, are
shown in Table 1. The fee has ranged from $1.35 to $2.31.
Table 1. Grazing Fees from 1981 to 2008 (dollars per AUM)
1981.....................$2.31 1990.....................$1.81 1999.....................$1.35
1982.....................$1.86 1991.....................$1.97 2000.....................$1.35
1983.....................$1.40 1992.....................$1.92 2001.....................$1.35
1984.....................$1.37 1993.....................$1.86 2002.....................$1.43
1985.....................$1.35 1994.....................$1.98 2003.....................$1.35
1986.....................$1.35 1995.....................$1.61 2004.....................$1.43
1987.....................$1.35 1996.....................$1.35 2005.....................$1.79
1988.....................$1.54 1997.....................$1.35 2006.....................$1.56
1989.....................$1.86 1998.....................$1.35 2007.....................$1.35
Distribution of Receipts. Fifty percent of all fees collected, or $10 million —
whichever is greater — go to a range betterment fund in the Treasury. The fund is used
for range rehabilitation, protection, and improvement including grass seeding and
reseeding, fence construction, weed control, water development, and fish and wildlife

habitat. Under law, one-half of the fund is to be used as directed by the Secretary of the
Interior or of Agriculture, and the other half is authorized to be spent in the district,
region, or forest that generated the fees, as the Secretary determines after consultation
with user representatives.6 Agency regulations contain additional detail. For example,
BLM regulations provide that half of the fund is to be allocated by the Secretary on a
priority basis, and the rest is to be spent in the state and district where derived. Forest
Service regulations provide that half of the monies are to be used in the national forest
where derived, and the rest in the FS region where the forest is located. In general, the
FS returns all range betterment funds to the forest that generated them.
Figure 1. Distribution of ForestThe agencies allocate the remaining 50%
Service Grazing Feesof the collections differently. For the FS, 25%
of the funds are deposited in the Treasury and
RBF*5025% are given to the states (16 U.S.C. §500;
see Figure 1). For the BLM, states receive

12.5% of monies collected from lands defined7

in §3 of the Taylor Grazing Act and 37.5% is
deposited in the Treasury. Section 3 lands are
those within grazing districts for which the
BLM issues grazing permits. (See Figure 2.)
By contrast, states receive 50% of fees collected
from BLM lands defined in §15 of the Taylor
Grazing Act. Section 15 lands are those outside
grazing districts for which the BLM leases
grazing allotments. (See Figure 3.) For both
agencies, any state share is to be used to benefit the counties that generated the receipts.

Figure 2. Distribution of BLMFigure 3. Distribution of BLM
Grazing Fees: Section 3Grazing Fees: Section 15
RB F *50
St a t e s50
6 43 U.S.C. §1751(b)(1). For the FS, see 36 C.F.R. §222.10. For the BLM, see 43 C.F.R.
7 Act of June 28, 1934; ch. 865, 48 Stat. 1269. 43 U.S.C. §§315, 315i.

Fee Evaluation and Reform Attempts
PRIA directed the Interior and Agriculture Secretaries to report to Congress, by
December 31, 1985, on the results of their evaluation of the fee formula and other grazing
fee options and their recommendations for implementing a permanent grazing fee. The
Secretaries’ report included (1) a discussion of livestock production in the western United
States; (2) an estimate of each agency’s cost for implementing its grazing programs; (3)
estimates of the market value for public rangeland grazing; (4) potential modifications to
the PRIA formula; (5) alternative fee systems; and (6) economic effects of the fee system
options on permittees.8 A 1992 revision of the report updated the appraised fair market
value of grazing on federal rangelands, determined the costs of range management
programs, and recalculated the PRIA base value through the application of economic
indices. The study results, criticized by some as using faulty evaluation methods, were
not adopted and the report has not been updated since.
President Clinton proposed, and Congress considered, grazing fee reform in the
1990s, but no reforms were adopted. In 1993, the Clinton Administration proposed an
administrative increase in the fee, and revisions of other grazing policies. The proposed
fee formula started with a base value of $3.96 per AUM, and was to be adjusted to reflect
annual changes in private land lease rates in the West (called the Forage Value Index).
The current PRIA formula is adjusted using multiple indices, a practice that some criticize
as double-counting ability-to-pay factors. Congressional objections forestalled an
administrative increase, and new rules for BLM rangeland management that took effect
on August 21, 1995 did not increase fees.
No grazing fee bills have passed either chamber for several years. In the 104th
Congress, the Senate passed a bill to establish a new grazing fee formula and alter
rangeland regulations. The formula was to be derived from the three-year average of the
total gross value of production for beef and no longer indexed to operating costs and
private land lease rates, as under PRIA. By one estimate, the measure would have
resulted in an increase of about $0.50 per AUM. In the 105th Congress, the House passed
a bill with a fee formula based on a 12-year average of beef cattle production costs and
revenues. The formula would have resulted in a 1997 fee of about $1.84 per AUM.
Current Issues and Legislation
There is ongoing debate about the appropriate grazing fee, with several key areas of
contention. First, there are differences over which criteria should prevail in setting fees:
fair market value; cost recovery (whereby the monies collected would cover the
government’s cost of running the program); sustaining ranching, or resource-based rural
economies generally; or diversification of local economies. Second, there is disagreement
over the validity of fair market value estimates for federal grazing because federal and
private lands for leasing are not always directly comparable. Third, whether to have a
uniform fee, or varied fees based on biological and economic conditions, is an area of
debate. Fourth, there are diverse views on the environmental costs and benefits of grazing

8 U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Service, and U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Bureau of Land
Management, Grazing Fee Review and Evaluation, A Report from the Secretary of Agriculture
and the Secretary of the Interior (Washington, DC: February 1986).

on federal lands and on the environmental impact of changes in grazing levels. Fifth, it
is uncertain whether fee increases would reduce the number of cattle grazing on sensitive
lands, such as riparian areas. Sixth, some environmentalists assert that the fee is not the
main issue, but that all livestock grazing should be barred to protect federal lands.
A handful of livestock owners in some western states have grazed cattle on federal
land without getting a permit or paying the required fee. The BLM and FS have responded
at times by fining and jailing the owners as well as impounding and selling the trespassing
cattle. The livestock owners claim they do not need to have permits or pay grazing fees
because the land is owned by the public; or that other rights, such as state water rights,
extend to the accompanying forage; or the BLM improperly allowed wild horses and
burros to graze the land. A particularly long-running controversy involved grazing
without permits by Western Shoshone Indians on land in Nevada they asserted belongs
to the tribe under a treaty, but which the federal government manages as public land.
There have been efforts to end livestock grazing on certain federal lands through
voluntary retirement of permits and leases and subsequent closure of the allotments to
grazing. This practice is opposed by those who support ranching on the affected lands,
fear a widespread effort to eliminate ranching as a way of life, or question the legality of
the process. Supporters seek to have ranchers relinquish their permits to the government
in exchange for compensation by third parties, particularly environmental groups. After
acquiring the permits through transfer, the groups advocate agency amendments to land
use plans to devote the grazing lands to other purposes, such as watershed conservation.
These groups would not pay grazing fees under their permits if they opt not to graze
during the amendment process, because fees are paid for actual grazing.
In recent Congresses, legislation has been introduced to buy out grazing permittees
(or lessees) on federal lands generally. For instance, H.R. 3166 in the 109th Congress
provided that permittees who voluntarily relinquished their permits would be
compensated at a rate of $175 per AUM, estimated at more than twice the market rate.
The allotments would have been permanently closed to grazing. Such legislation, backed
by the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, is advocated to enhance resource
protection, resolve conflicts between grazing and other land uses, provide economic
options to permittees, and save money. According to proponents, such a national buyout
program would cost about $3.1 billion if all permits were relinquished, but would save
more than that amount over time. H.R. 3166 would have authorized $100 million to
compensate permit holders and make transition payments to counties, and established
priorities for compensation if funds were insufficient for all buyouts. Opponents of
buyout legislation include those who support grazing, others who fear the creation of a
compensable property right in grazing permits, some who contend the program would be
too costly, or still others who support different types of grazing reform. Other legislation
has sought to buy out grazing leases on particular allotments, and to retire those
allotments from grazing use (e.g., S. 2379, 110th Congress, for land within the Cascade-
Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon). Still other measures have sought to require
federal land management agencies to compensate permit holders when certain actions
reduced or eliminated grazing and alternative forage was not available (e.g., H.R. 411,

109th Congress).