Every time the 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 lands ranchers 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 NRCS was historically prohibited from awarding EQIP funds to public lands ranchers because the grazing fees these ranchers paid to the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) were supposed to help fund livestock management plans.
Public lands ranchers first became eligible for EQIP funds after Arizona’s Gila County Cattlegrowers complained to the George W. Bush administration that the Tonto National Forest was requiring them to drastically cut cattle numbers in response to a severe drought. The Arizona NRCS was authorized to proceed with a $1.5 million EQIP pilot program on the Tonto in the fall of 2004. According to the NRCS, most of these funds went to 19 public lands ranchers on the Tonto that “voluntarily” reduced their herds. (Tonto land managers had already ordered them to do it.)
The Arizona NRCS claimed the purpose of the EQIP pilot program was “preserving sustainable grazing in the Tonto National Forest.” But there are hundreds of thousands of acres of hot Sonoran Desert on the Tonto, and in 1991 the General Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report (RCED-92-12) which concluded that permitting livestock grazing in hot deserts on public lands “merits reconsideration” because of the “high environmental risk and low economic benefit” associated with this activity.
Congress subsequently expanded the scope of the EQIP program in the 2008 Farm Bill and made these funds available to all public lands ranchers in the West. The program’s cost has grown too. In Arizona, for example, EQIP funds awarded to public lands ranchers grew to $4.96 million in federal fiscal year 2008. (There are only about 900 federal lands grazing permit holders in Arizona.) Although Arizona’s public lands ranchers continue to receive EQIP funds, the latest amounts are difficult to identify because the NRCS says they no longer track them as unique EQIP recipients.
EQIP Funds Are Being Wasted on Untested Strategies
Most EQIP-funded livestock management plans issued by Arizona’s national forests during the last few years have included claims they will improve riparian habitat conditions. But rarely have these plans called for restricting livestock from streams. Instead, in nearly identical language, they say the construction of new livestock watering sites in the uplands will draw enough cattle away from the streams to allow the riparian habitat to improve. But none of these proposals have included any examples of where this strategy has worked in the desert Southwest, because no research has been done to see if it works. To put it another way, these plans are political solutions – not science-based ones.
Instead, the Forest Service promises it will use its adaptive management strategy to take more effective measures to keep cattle out of the streams if monitoring shows these plans aren’t working. It’s obvious that the real purpose of these plans is to build livestock waters that will open up new upland areas to livestock grazing, and try to increase permitted cattle numbers.
Field staff with Arizona Forest Service and BLM offices with have admitted to me that they’ve had no say in drafting these grazing plans, and that the plans have nearly identical wording because they are being drafted by the NRCS, which provides the EQIP funding. They are being implemented, however, on public lands which are supposed to be managed under the multiple use doctrine, wherein lands are utilized in the combination that will best meet the needs of the American people. The purpose of the NRCS, however, is to promote agriculture. Forest Service and BLM employees say they still have the power to veto any unacceptable provisions in these plans, because they must be approved through the NEPA public planning process before the NRCS can disburse the EQIP funds. But the ability of federal land managers to appropriately manage livestock is obviously being hobbled by the fact that another agency, with a different agenda, is controlling the purse strings.
If Congress wants to fund livestock management plans on our public lands in an honest and fair manner, they should end EQIP grants to public lands ranchers and increase the grazing fee. The 2013 grazing fee is only $1.35 per head per month. In other words, this is all that ranchers pay to graze their cattle on our public lands. It’s obviously too low to generate enough money for the Forest Service and BLM to be able to implement the livestock management plans needed to protect our public lands from overgrazing.
In a 2017 edition of Rangelands, a periodical publication of the Society for Range Management (SRM), a research article was published titled Upland Water and Deferred Rotation Effects on Cattle Use in Riparian and Upland Areas that found building upland livestock watering sites didn’t improve the condition of riparian areas but facilitated more grazing on the uplands. In other words, the millions of tax dollars spent on EQIP grants to public lands ranchers since 2004 didn’t improve riparian habitat and were a waste of money. It’s reminiscent of all the money public land managers wasted implementing holistic resource management (HRM) grazing schemes before they discovered they didn’t work.
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