Utah passes bill to make grazing a state right. What do Southern Utahns need to know?

Stock image | Photo by Joe iederer/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The Utah State Legislature recently passed a bill that would change grazing in the state from a permitted activity to a right.

Rep. Carl Albrecht discusses HB 363 at the Utah House, Salt Lake City, Utah, Feb. 13, 2024 | Photo courtesy of the Utah Legislature, St. George News

Rep. Carl Albrecht sponsored the livestock grazing amendments bill, designated HB 363 in the 2024 legislative session. The District 70 representative told St. George News that while the bill would not change federal statutes, it would give Utah another tool when negotiating with federal agencies about whether to limit grazing in an area.

Albrecht was prompted to sponsor the bill by the Bureau of Land Management’s release of a new draft Resource Management Plan for the Grandstaircase-Escalante.

“The new monument management plan has alternatives that would devastate the livelihoods of those who farm and ranch,” he said. “We need to take a stand as a state to protect these families from aggressive federal overreach.”

The bill considers federal grazing allotments as valid existing property rights in range management if the person granted an allotment has a valid permit or lease issued by a federal agency authorizing them to graze domestic livestock. They must also graze the land with sustained yield, demonstrate the land is primarily valuable for grazing and begin grazing before a federal agency decides to withdraw the land from use, according to the text.

This file photo shows the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Garfield County, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Jack Dykinga, St. George News

Albrecht said that ranchers are known to graze allotments over several generations, completing projects on the land, such as drilling wells or constructing catch basins and water lines, among others.

“Even though the feds argue that grazing allotments have no monetary value, they’re really bought and sold,” he added. “And the banks will accept them as collateral on loans.”

A permit gives a rancher permission to graze within a set area, called an allotment, Redge Johnson, the executive director of Utah’s Public Lands Office, said at a late January House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee hearing.

Redge Johnson, the executive director of Utah’s Public Lands Office, discusses HB 363 in the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee hearing, Salt Lake City, Utah, Jan. 29, 2024 | Photo courtesy of the Utah Legislature, St. George News

Grazing permits are considered preference rights under 1934’s Taylor Grazing Act, which was passed by the U.S. Congress at the request of ranchers to slow the degradation of public lands and watersheds, according to the BLM.

“What the permit does is … allows that rancher the preferred right to graze in that allotment, and they have to have a base property that’s associated with that allotment in order to get the permit,” Johnson said. “So what we’re actually saying here (in passing the bill) is that the rancher has a right to graze on those allotments, and the permit is just a tool that is used by the federal agencies to identify who is there.”

Allotments have federal annual operating agreements or management plans, which articulate when they can be grazed, Johnson said. Typically, federal agencies will not restrict grazing for an entire season, but ranchers will sometimes voluntarily reduce grazing based on circumstances, such as drought conditions.

In this file photo, cows wander in the forest, Panguitch, Utah, Sep. 26, 2021 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

“These are the best stewards we have of these landscapes,” he said. “So it’s very rare that you don’t see them treating it that well because almost every one of the allotment owners wants to pass that down to future generations, and so it’s in their best interest to also manage those so that they have long-term viability.”

The term “grazing rights” is a misnomer, as federal grazing permits are 10-year licenses that are revocable and amendable, Andy Kerr wrote in a blog post. Kerr is an Oregon-based conservation consultant and Czar of the Larch Company — a for-profit conservation company.

“Our public lands are habitat for wildlife, sources of drinking water, and valued by Americans for myriad recreation opportunities,” he said, adding that more accurate phrases include grazing permits, leases or licenses.

Sheep and lambs graze in a field in this file photo, Cedar City, Utah, May 30, 2020 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

“While federal public land grazing permittees don’t have a property right associated with such grazing, they do have a property interest,” he continued. “Federal grazing permits have monetary value in that they are associated with particular ranches (‘base properties’). The IRS taxes capital gains in the value of permits attached to ranch properties when they are sold. Banks loan money partially based on the permit value of a base property. Permittees sell their permits to another qualifying rancher and the land management agencies transfer the permit without question.

“But a property interest that can be bought and sold in the market is not automatically a property right. The takings clause in the 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires just compensation where private property is taken by the federal government.”

Laura Welp, the Western Watersheds Project’s ecosystems specialist, said the Utah Legislature has no authority to grant ranchers property rights on federal lands.

In this file photo, a cow looks back at the photographer, Mollies Nipple allotment, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah, March 19, 2013 | Photo courtesy of the Western Watersheds Project, St. George News

“These attempts to usurp public lands and agency decision-making for private profit have been turned back time and again by the courts,” she told St. George News via email. “Ranchers have grazing permits that allow them to exercise the privilege of grazing on federal land, subject to terms and conditions. But it does not convey a right to graze.

“That decision is up to the land management agency, which is charged with maintaining land health on behalf of the American people,” Welp continued. “If the legislature wants to involve itself in grazing management, it should fund the retirement and restoration of those allotments that are failing land health standards due to grazing.”

At the House committee hearing, Tammy Pearson said Beaver County, where she is a commissioner, is a “public lands county,” which is 87% public land. There are 64 grazers who live in the area, supporting the local economy. Pearson also ranches in Beaver, Iron and Millard counties.

Rep. Rex Shipp discusses HB 363 in the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee hearing, Salt Lake City, Utah, Jan. 29, 2024 | Photo courtesy of the Utah Legislature, St. George News

“We’ve bought and paid for those allotments and the grazing fees that we pay annually, and it’s a huge economy,” she said. “And it’s literally the only thing that’s been sustainable in rural Utah.”

Rep. Rex Shipp, who represents Iron County’s District 71, said that agriculture is “critical,” and he moved to issue a favorable recommendation from the committee.

“This is an important issue,” he said. “I think it’s important we support it.”

The bill was passed by both the Utah House and Senate and awaits Gov. Cox’s signature.

Updated, 1:27 p.m., Feb. 29, to include the correct credit for one of the photos.

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2024 Utah Legislature by clicking here.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2024, all rights reserved.

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