Grazing on Public Lands Still a Source of Controversy … and Stories

October 9, 2019
Cattle grazing in the Bureau of Land Management's Pine Forest Range Wilderness Area in Nevada. Photo: Bureau of Land Management, Flickr Creative Commons.  Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Grazing on Public Lands Still a Source of Controversy … and Stories  

By Joseph A. Davis

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is one in a series of special reports from SEJournal that looks ahead to key issues in the coming year. Visit the full “2020 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report for more.

If your audience is West of the Mississippi, you may need to write about grazing, especially grazing on public lands. 

That “empty” land between truckstops out West is incredibly valuable. Not only does it provide grazing and forage for cattle and sheep. It provides habitat for precious and endangered birds, wildlife and fish. And it provides timber, minerals, recreation, archeological sites, oil and gas, wilderness and beauty. 

But it is also fragile — vulnerable to erosion, invasive species, vandalism, pollution and other threats.

Politics and outlaws are also part of the story of public lands. Historically, many in Western states have resented and resisted federal land ownership. Even William Perry Pendley, the current head of the  Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, has advocated selling off federal lands [Editor’s Note: Pendley is participating in an Oct 11 opening plenary on Public Lands at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conference this year. Here’s more.]   

This resistance to federal land ownership manifested itself during the so-called “Sagebrush Rebellion” of the 1970s and '80s, and again in more recent years with the Bundy standoff and the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

So with luck, your reporting can focus on people and policy ... and avoid gunfire.


The backstory

Public lands involve more than two centuries of U.S. history and culture. 

As the federal government of a growing nation acquired vast chunks of land (e.g., the Louisiana Purchase), it evolved a huge array of laws, policies and institutions for putting the land to use (at least, use by European colonizers). 

But as the government created new states and allowed citizens to claim and settle lands, much of that land was left unclaimed and remained in federal hands. 

For a long time the “open range” belonged to everyone and no one, and the Wild West and cowboys arose as legends embodying American freedom.


“[O]vergrazing, land abuse and climate change 

brought the devastation of the Dust Bowl era. 

And land conservation emerged as a 

federal goal (at least a partial one, sometimes).”


But overgrazing, land abuse and climate change brought the devastation of the Dust Bowl era. And land conservation emerged as a federal goal (at least a partial one, sometimes). 

So, in 1934 Congress enacted the Taylor Grazing Act, which established the general structure by which the BLM regulates grazing for conservation as well as the benefit of ranchers today. 

While much of the land was under BLM, a great deal also was under the U.S. Forest Service, Native American tribes, the military and various federal agencies.

Many other federal laws eventually affected public (and state and private) grazing land. 

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act, or FLPMA, passed in 1976. FLPMA phased out the Homestead Acts that had previously governed claims to government lands, and made it federal policy that most public lands would remain in public ownership. 

FLPMA also set a federal policy of managing these lands for “multiple use” — meaning not just grazing, but forestry, mining, drilling, watershed and wildlife habitat, among other things. 

By the time the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act (which applied only to National Forest lands) was passed in 1960, this policy evolved to mandate conservation for ongoing future use. 

While we can not list all of them here, many other federal laws constrain the management of federal grazing lands. Examples include the Endangered Species Act and the National Forest Management Act.


Story ideas

  • Who are some of the major grazing permit holders in your area? What are the major public lands issues they are concerned about?
  • What sort of infrastructure changes have grazing permit holders and public agencies made in your area? Fences? Roads? Water wells and tanks?
  • What fish and wildlife species live in or pass through grazing lands in your area? How does grazing affect them?
  • Is there conflict in your area between ranchers grazing different kinds of animals, e.g., cattle vs. sheep? Is their conflict with wild species like predators? 
  • Does grazing conflict with other uses such as recreation or drilling?
  • What kinds of vegetation grow in grazing areas near you? Which provide forage? Which are native or natural? How does grazing affect them?
  • What are the differences in management of federal, state and private grazing lands in your area? Which do ranchers prefer and why? Do grazing fees differ?
  • What if any mechanisms do public and private landowners in your area use to limit grazing in ways that make it sustainable?
  • Do ranchers in your area consider grazing lands or allotments to be functionally their own property? Do they acknowledge public ownership? Resist it? Where do state and local politicians stand?
  • Grazing districts are fundamental land management units. What are the grazing districts in your area? What particular issues are important for them?
  • Is there a livestock or grazing association in your area? What projects and issues do they work on?


Reporting resources

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet and Reporter's Toolbox columns. Davis also directs SEJ's WatchDog Project and writes WatchDog Tipsheet, and compiles SEJ's daily news headlines, EJToday.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 36. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

SEJ Publication Types: