EQIP Program Gives Huge Subsidies To Public Land Ranchers

Every time a Farm Bill comes up for renewal in Congress the budget hawks searching for wasteful government spending should take a close look at the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funds being awarded to public land ranchers in the West by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

EQIP funds provide cost-sharing assistance to agricultural producers to help them implement “conservation” practices. The money is disbursed by the NRCS through contracts with the producers. It’s a called a cost-sharing program because the producer is supposed to share in the cost of the EQIP project. Most of the EQIP assistance awarded to public land ranchers is used to fund the construction of new livestock waters and pasture fences. Typically, the money is used to purchase the materials, while the ranchers contribute the labor. In other words, there’s usually little out-of-pocket expense for the ranchers, and if they pay somebody to complete the labor, it’s a convenient tax deduction against their EQIP assistance, which is taxable income. Furthermore, there’s nothing to prevent an EQIP recipient from being the fencing contractor for a neighboring EQIP recipient, so that the labor they perform is deductible for each of them.

2019 EQIP Audit

The amount of money the NRCS pays to help producers implement EQIP projects isn’t based upon receipts, invoices, or evidence of the local actual costs. Instead, the NRCS uses a payment schedule of the estimated costs of various practices in order to reduce the workload associated with collecting specific actual cost data. In September 2019 the USDA’s Officer of Inspector General Audit Report 10601-0005-31 found that, “component costs used to calculate financial assistance to EQIP producers are outdated and may not consistently represent the producer’s cost to implement conservation practices.” This lead to agricultural producers being “unreasonably compensated.” The auditors stated that:

Because NRCS relied on outdated and inaccurate component prices to calculate payment schedules, we question over $2.16 billion obligated for FYs 2016–2017.

Public lands ranchers were not allowed to receive EQIP assistance when Congress created the program as part of the Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act of 1996. That was probably because most Americans felt they were already getting a significant subsidy in the form of the below-market grazing fees they pay for using Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands.

But that situation changed after the beginning 2002, when Arizona’s Tonto National Forest, which includes much of Gila County, ordered its grazing permittees to remove almost all of their cattle from the Forest because of an increase in the severity of a long-term drought. Arizona had experienced two of the driest winters on record, back-to-back, and six of the last seven winters had brought below-normal precipitation. Furthermore, 791,284 acres of the Tonto’s total 2,964,308 acres, or about 27% of the Forest, are inherently unsuited for livestock grazing, regardless of any drought, because they are hot Sonoran Desert.

2002 Farm Bill

In April Arizona Gov. Jane Hull reacted to the state’s drought crisis by submitting a drought relief request to Republican President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Agriculture, Ann Veneman, and on May 17 Secretary Veneman responded by declaring all of Arizona a drought disaster area. A few days before that, on May 13, Congress had passed the 2002 Farm Bill, which included a revision to the EQIP program that changed the definition of the program’s eligible lands to allow the inclusion of, “other agricultural land that the Secretary determines poses a serious threat to soil, air, water, or related resources.” The new definition was so vague that it could include almost any land, including public land – especially if it was located in a drought disaster area.

The true intention of this change was made clear when the NRCS consequently published its new EQIP rules in the Federal Register on May 30, 2003. Section 1466.8(c) of the new rules stated that EQIP eligible lands now included:

(2) Publicly owned land where:

(i) The land is under private control for the contract period and is included in the participant’s operating unit; and

(ii) The conservation practices will contribute to an improvement in the identified natural resource concern;

The new rules were issued too late to be applicable to the 2003 EQIP financing cycle, but by 2004 the Tonto National Forest EQIP Pilot Project was operational. Arizona’s Gila County Cattlegrowers Association had proposed it to Arizona’s NRCS State Conservationist Michael Somerville, and it had subsequently been approved by Secretary Veneman’s administration in Washington D.C. (Dale Moore, her chief of staff, was a former lobbyist for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.) By September of 2004 the pilot project had awarded more than $1.5 million in EQIP assistance to ranchers with grazing permits on the Tonto National Forest. The NRCS stated that the goal of the pilot project was “preserving sustainable grazing in the Tonto National Forest.” In November Secretary Veneman announced that the program had been expanded to include public land ranchers in neighboring New Mexico, another place where the regional drought had forced the Forest Service to remove cattle.

Most of the ranchers’ cattle were still off the Tonto because of the drought, so it was difficult to understand how the EQIP money was going to being applied. But it became clear in 2005 when the Tonto began to issue authorizations for cattle to resume grazing on the Forest because the ranchers had used the EQIP money to build numerous new livestock watering sites and pasture fences. These new “range improvements” were characterized as conservation measures because they allowed the cattle to be more evenly disbursed, supposedly reducing the overuse of their favorite gathering places, such as riparian areas. But few, if any, of the new fences were built to exclude cattle from streams, so the primary ecological effect of the new upland waters, coupled with the increased cattle numbers, was to bring grazing impacts, during a continuing drought, to upland areas that had previously seen few cows. (This was confirmed by a research article titled Upland Water and Deferred Rotation Effects on Cattle Use in Riparian and Upland Areas that was published in a 2017 edition of Rangelands, a periodical publication of the Society for Range Management. The researchers found that building upland livestock watering sites didn’t significantly improve the condition of riparian areas, unless the riparian areas were fenced off, but primarily facilitated rotational grazing and more livestock on the uplands.)

In 2005 the Society for Range Management, Arizona Section, awarded rancher David Cook, co-owner of the DC Cattle Co. LLC, and permittee of the Tonto’s Coolidge-Parker grazing allotment, their Range Manager of the Year Award. One of the reasons, they explained, was that he helped get the Forest’s EQIP Pilot Project approved. Cook quickly took advantage of the EQIP assistance, and other government assistance programs available to Arizona ranchers.

Government Assistance Program Key

AWPFEQIPHPCLCCGPLFPLRPWQIG
AWPF - Arizona Water Protection Fund, AWPF Commission (state)
EQIP - Environmental Quality Incentives Program, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (federal)
HPC - Habitat Partnership Committee, Arizona Game & Fish Commission (state)
LCCGP - Livestock & Crop Conservation Program, Arizona Department of Agriculture (state)
LFP - Livestock Forage Disaster Program, USDA’s Farm Service Agency (federal)
LRP - Landowner Relations Program, Arizona Game & Fish Department (state)
WQIG - Water Quality Improvement Grant, Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (federal/state)

DC Cattle Ranch (DC Cattle Co. LLC) - Coolidge-Parker Allotment
YEARSPROGRAMAMOUNTPROJECT NAME
2004 - 2015EQIP$339,226
2005LCCGP #05-23$17,926Livestock Water and Monitoring
2007LCCGP #07-20$76,989Livestock Water and Fencing
2014 - 2018LFP$36,125
2019HPC #18-603$10,560Parker Coolidge Tank Cleanouts
$480,826TOTAL 2004-2019

* Mr. Cook also manages some other local ranches. From 2005 to 2015 his DC Cattle Co., LLC, received another $388,849 in EQIP assistance. Some of it was used on the Tonto’s Sleeping Beauty Complex grazing allotments, which he managed for a local mining company.

On May 24, 2017, Cook , who had been elected to the state’s House of Representatives in 2016, testified at a hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation that his ranch had been “held hostage” by federal red tape.

2008 Farm Bill

The 2008 Farm Bill continued to allow public land ranchers to receive EQIP assistance, and afterwards the NRCS published new rules on May 29, 2009, that made any public lands rancher eligible for EQIP assistance, even if the project had nothing to do with improving their private land. When Congress subsequently passed the 2014 Farm Bill, it continued the EQIP eligibility for public land ranchers, and folded the NRCS Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) into the EQIP program.

Congress has also steadily increased EQIP funding. It’s difficult, however, to know how much EQIP money is going to public land ranchers because the NRCS doesn’t track them as unique EQIP recipients. But according the the USDA, from 2005 to 2020 the NRCS issued EQIP payments of more than $246 million in Arizona alone, although that included all recipients, not just public land ranchers.

These large public investments in private ranching operations have occurred during a nearly uninterrupted drought in the Southwest, and in spite of scientific predictions that the weather will become hotter and drier due to climate change. The decision to make public land ranchers eligible for EQIP, and the resultant increases in permitted cattle numbers, have been intentionally implemented with little public notice. Many EQIP projects, for example, are completed without fully engaging the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) public planning process. After the passage of each Farm Bill, the NRCS has completed an environmental assessment (EA) they claimed allowed subsequent EQIP projects to be completed using NEPA categorical exclusions. But a nationwide programmatic EA does not provide the legally required site-specific analysis of the expensive and controversial new livestock management schemes being implemented on our public lands.

Bar X Allotment & Heber-Reno Sheep Driveway

The story of the Bar X Grazing Allotment, located in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest, is a good example of how EQIP funds are being used to implement new livestock management plans and increase cattle numbers on public land during drought – without the public’s knowledge.

On a summer morning in 2015, the residents of Colcord Estates and Ponderosa Springs Estates woke up to a herd of cattle trampling through their yards. These residential communities are located within the Tonto, in the ponderosa pines south of the Mogollon Rim off State Route 260 east of Payson. And they are also located within the boundaries of the Forest’s Bar X Grazing Allotment. But few, if any, of these homeowners were aware of that fact in 2015 because much of the allotment had been closed since 1979, due to severe ecological damage caused by cattle grazing. Subsequently, few of their properties were fenced. Angry residents called the allotment’s grazing permittee to complain about the situation, but he responded by pointing out that Arizona’s open range law doesn’t require ranchers to fence their cattle in, it forces property owners to fence them out.

On August 1, 2016, the residents sent a complaint, accompanied by 125 letters of concern and petitions containing 135 signatures, to the Tonto’s Forest Supervisor to request that the Bar X pasture which surrounded their neighborhoods never be authorized for cattle grazing again. The pasture wasn’t grazed that year, or in 2017, but at the beginning of 2018 the Tonto issued annual operating instructions (AOI) for the allotment which authorized the pasture to be grazed again that summer. The angry residents, now organized into a group called Neighbors of the Mogollon Rim, responded by filing a federal lawsuit on April 11, 2018, with the help of Advocates for the West.

It alleged that the Forest’s decision to graze the pasture was “arbitrary, capricious, and contrary” to the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the National Forest Management Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It pointed out that, according to the 1981 Bar X allotment management plan (AMP), grazing was not supposed to be authorized in the pasture unless “evaluations” had determined it had “recovered” and was capable of being grazed “on a sustained yield basis,” and the Forest hadn’t completed a NEPA analysis before it had decided to authorize the grazing.

Without a legal leg to stand on, the Tonto issued a revised 2018 AOI for the allotment on June 15, 2008, which removed the authorization to graze the pasture that summer. And on October 9, 2018, the Forest Service entered into a legal agreement wherein the Tonto suspended the authorization for the Bar X allotment’s permittee to increase grazing on the Forest until a NEPA analysis was conducted to identify a new AMP for the allotment.

This was a victory, at least temporarily, for the homeowners. But it was also important because the research used in the lawsuit, along with the additional information provided in the Forest’s subsequent NEPA documents, revealed that many questionable decisions had been made by Tonto and Arizona Game & Fish officials in order to increase cattle grazing in this area of the Forest.

I learned about the story of the Bar X allotment when Arizona conservationists circulated copies of the August 2016 petition,  the 2018 lawsuit, and the resultant legal settlement. So, when the Forest solicited public comments in February 2019 on a preliminary environmental assessment (EA) of the Bar X Allotment & Heber-Reno Sheep Driveway Grazing Authorization project, I was one of the people who dove deeper into the relevant public records.

They revealed that the Bar X permittee had purchased the ranch’s small base property, and thus acquired the allotment’s grazing permit, around 2007. At that time, the permittee was authorized to graze 130 head of cows yearlong, while several of the allotment’s pastures, including the one that surrounded the residential neighborhood, where not authorized for grazing due to ecological damage from past overgrazing. Furthermore, the eastern boundaries of the allotment were adjacent to a large corridor of Forest land called the Heber-Reno Sheep Driveway, which had also been rested from grazing for years due to past damage from livestock grazing.

After 2007, the Forest started to authorize grazing to resume on the Bar X allotment’s ungrazed pastures on a “trial basis.” Then in 2010 it began to authorize the allotment’s permittee to use some of the ungrazed pastures in the adjacent Driveway. In 2011 it also began to authorize the nearby Potato Butte and Diamond Butte ranches to use some of the Driveway’s ungrazed pastures.

No NEPA analysis was conducted before these significant decisions were made. According to the project’s preliminary EA, the decisions to begin grazing the Driveway pastures were based upon monitoring by a third party that determined they had “excess forage.” The Forest also approved numerous expensive range “improvement” projects to facilitate cattle grazing in these areas. The projects that generated decisions memos from the Forest are listed below, but there may have been others.

The projects that benefited the Bar X permittee included:

The projects that benefited the Potato Butte & Diamond Butte ranches included:

The Tonto authorized all of these projects using NEPA categorical exclusions, so no EAs needed to be completed, and they couldn’t be appealed. Furthermore, the brief decision memos failed to mention that some of the projects were needed to support cattle grazing in previously ungrazed pastures. A member of the general public reading the memos would have needed to possess a detailed knowledge of the local pasture names to know what was going on.

Moreover, the projects completed since 2007 which benefited the Bar X Ranch were largely paid for with public monies. Most of the money came from the federal Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). There were other programs too, and the table below lists all of the government financial assistance that benefited the ranch prior to the day the Tonto National Forest issued its preliminary environmental assessment in 2019.

Bar X Ranch (The Bar X Ranch LLC) - Bar X Allotment
YEARSPROGRAMAMOUNTPROJECT NAME
2008-2015EQIP$401,362
2010CREIP$21,767Solar Water Pumps (Program no longer exists.)
2011LCCGP #11-74$83,596Livestock Water and Fencing
2015HPC #14-603$11,526Bar X Water Pipeline
2015HPC #14-604$12,000Bar X Dirt Tanks
2016HPC #15-617$9,000Bar X Dirt Tanks
2017HPC #16-606$11,360Bar X Water Storage Materials
2018 - 2019LFP$29,251
$579,862TOTAL 2008-2019

Financial information acquired through Freedom of Information Act requests and Public Records Requests.

Bar X Grazing Allotment, Tonto National Forest
View of Bar X Grazing Allotment, Tonto National Forest, from Forest Road 200.

The Potato Butte and Diamond Butte ranches also benefited from government financial assistance, before the EA was issued, to help them use the ungrazed Driveway pastures. The Potato Butte permittee was allowed to graze the Driveway’s Potato Butte Pasture, and benefited from at least three HPC grants, including grants #11-606 and #13-608, totaling $29,065, which were for “grassland maintenance” in support of the 2011 Juniper Treatment project to kill young juniper trees in order to promote grass production for cattle. This was done despite the fact the Tonto National Forest Plan states that pinyon-juniper vegetation in this area should be managed “toward a goal of 25-50% cover of browse” in order “to emphasize the production of mule deer.” The Potato Butte Ranch also received the benefit of HPC grant #14-608 for $15,000 to help pay for a solar-powered pump to send water to livestock troughs from the New Dutchman Well project

The Diamond Butte permittee was allowed to use the Driveway’s Brady Canyon and Cline Mesa pastures and received the benefits of at least two HPC grants. Grant #14-605 for $24,000 helped pay for the 2015 Soldier Camp Tanks project, and grant #18-607 for $12,000 helped pay for the 2018 Soldier/Diamond Water Development project.

These two ranches also received EQIP assistance. The Potato Butte permittee received $62,560 in EQIP from 2004-2007, while the Diamond Butte permittee received $341,469 in EQIP from 2006-2014. It’s unclear how much of this money may have been used to facilitate the use of the Driveway pastures. The total government assistance that benefited both ranches is listed in the tables below.

Potato Butte Ranch (Potato Butte Ranch LLC) - Potato Butte Allotment
YEARSPROGRAMAMOUNTPROJECT NAME
2005-2007EQIP$26,041
2012HPC #11-606$12,000Grassland Maintenance
2014HPC #13-608$17,065Grassland Maintenance
2014 - 2019LFP$31,085
2015HPC #14-608$15,000Solar Water Well
$101,191TOTAL 2005-2019
Diamond Butte Ranch (M Lazy S Cattle Co.) - Diamond Butte and Flying W Allotments
YEARSPROGRAMAMOUNTPROJECT NAME
2006 - 2014EQIP$341,469
2015HPC #14-605$24,000Soldier Camp Tanks
2018 - 2019LFP$49,292
2019HPC #18-607$12,000Diamond Butte Dirt Tanks
2019LRP$18,0003.5 Miles Water Pipeline, Two 5,000 Gallon Water Storage Tanks, 3 Water Troughs
$444,761TOTAL 2006-2019

All of this government financial assistance facilitated a significant increase in cattle grazing in the area. The original 2018 AOI for Bar X allotment, before it was revised in response to the lawsuit, had authorized 240 cows yearlong, 18 bulls yearlong, and 120 yearlings for 5 months. That equates to about 3,602 animal unit months (AUMs), a 230% increase over the 1,560 AUMs originally authorized in 2007.

A measure of the impact this increase in cattle grazing inflicted upon the area’s wildlife habitat can be had by comparing cattle and wildlife AUMs, as an AUM estimates how much forage a grazing animal eats in a month.

Livestock Animal Unit Months (AUMs)

  • A cow, or a cow and her calf, grazing for a month, equals 1.0 AUM
  • A bull grazing for a month typically equals 1.4 AUM
  • A yearling grazing for a month typically equals 0.7 AUM
  • A horse typically equals 1.3 AUM

Wildlife Animal Unit Months (AUMs)

  • An elk grazing for a month typically equals 0.6 AUM
  • A mule deer or pronghorn antelope grazing for a month equals 0.20 AUM
  • A white-tailed deer grazing for a month equals 0.15 AUM

It’s doubtful that these new livestock waters provided much benefit to the local elk population, because there are numerous seeps, springs, and perennial stream stretches in the area. The elk knew where the water was and elk regularly travel much further than cattle to reach water (Krausman 1996). Instead, the new waters probably created spatial competition between the elk and the cattle, because elk, like deer, move out of pastures when cattle are present (Krausman 1996, Wallace 1987). These waters also likely created a significant increase in forage competition between the local elk and cattle, because they allowed more cattle to be on the land during a practically uninterrupted drought.

Arizona drought history 2000-2020
(www.drought.gov/drought/states/arizona)

Furthermore, none of these projects included any specific measures to protect the local riparian habitat from cattle. Some riparian grazing utilization guidelines were included in the Forest’s final decision notice issued for the project on December 13, 2019. But cattle weren’t restricted from accessing the area’s perennial stream stretches. Instead, the Forest claimed in the project’s EA that the riparian use guidelines would be met mostly because pastures with riparian areas would only be grazed for a “short” duration of “about 1 to 2 months.” But it only takes a few days for cattle to tear up a stream during a hot summer.

The Forest’s final decision for the Bar X allotment also allowed for the authorization of up to 9,250 AUMs of adult cattle annually, and up to 498 AUMs of yearlings for 5 months, for a total of 9,748 AUMs – which is an increase of about 270% from the 3,602 AUMs initially authorized in 2018, and that was a 230% increase over what had been authorized in 2007.

Updates

On February 12, 2020, Advocates for the West filed another lawsuit on behalf of Neighbors of the Mogollon Rim to challenge the Forest’s final decision for the Bar X Allotment & Heber-Reno Sheep Driveway Grazing Authorization.

On October 2, 2020, Advocates for the West filed a motion for summary judgment on behalf of Neighbors of the Mogollon Rim that alleged the Forest Service committed a wide range of administrative law errors when it decided to expand and re-open grazing on the Bar X allotment.

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