Supreme Court Says Government Owns Government Lands
Unanimous Ruling Affirms Government, Not Agribusiness Corporations, Control Public Land
Below are some excerpts from a news report on this important Supreme Court ruling. Now the corporate welfare queens of agribusiness may have to rely on the free market instead of handouts from the taxpayers.
by Paul RogersIn a decision that affects more than 150 million acres of public land from the Great Plains to the Pacific, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled that the Clinton administration did not violate the law when it imposed stricter environmental regulations on "ranchers" who graze cattle and sheep on federal lands.
The 9-0 ruling -- a victory for environmentalists and a setback for agribusiness corporations -- was described as the most significant federal grazing case in a quarter century.
The court's action now makes it easier for the federal government to reduce numbers of cattle and sheep across the West's wide-open prairies, forests and rangelands as part of efforts to stop overgrazing, protect fragile streams and restore endangered species. The ruling does not affect privately owned land.
``I'm ecstatic. What the Supreme Court has done is reaffirm that the secretary of the interior, and not the ranchers, rule the public rangelands,'' said Johanna Wald, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The agribusiness industry described the ruling as the latest in a series of setbacks that will make it more difficult for livestock operators to make a living from federal corporate welfare handouts.
``We're extremely disappointed,'' said Bruce Blodgett, director of natural resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation. ``It has some rather negative implications for our rural counties.''
``Environmental groups really need to be careful what they are asking for,'' Blodgett added. ``If ranchers are not viable, they will look at other options for their lands: condominiums, golf courses and other things that don't protect habitat.'' (Blodgett apparently failed to grasp that this ruling applies to public land.)
Cattle grazing is the biggest commercial use of public land in the West. In California, for example, 35 percent of the state is controlled by the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. Grazing occurs on much of that acreage.
The BLM, whose lands were affected by Monday's court ruling, controls 176 million acres in the Lower 48, most of it in 12 Western states. The agency allows grazing on 93 percent of those lands -- an area equal in size to Washington, Oregon and Idaho -- where agribusiness corporations run 2 million cattle and 1.7 million sheep.
A nine-month investigation published by the Mercury News in November found taxpayers lost $108 million last year on federal grazing programs.
The report found that large corporations and millionaires, such as hotel mogul Barron Hilton and computer heiress Mary Hewlett Jaffee, benefit the most from below-market grazing fees and other rules.
At issue Monday was a lawsuit filed by livestock groups against the U.S. Department of Interior, seeking to overturn environmental reforms put in place by the Clinton administration in 1995. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said they were an attempt to reduce ecological damage. Numerous biological reports have found that overgrazing, particularly in stream areas, has driven birds and fish to the endangered list.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association and other livestock groups sued, arguing Babbitt exceeded his authority under the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act in three ways.
First, Babbitt's rules allowed people not in the livestock business -- from fishing groups to the Nature Conservancy -- to compete for permits. (Imagine! A free market auction! Why would Americans oppose that?) Second, the cattlemen disputed a provision that the government -- not them -- owns fences, pipes and water tanks on public land.
Finally, they argued the rules made it easier for BLM biologists to reduce cattle numbers.
The ranchers lost on all counts.
In an opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer, the Supreme Court ruled Babbitt had not exceeded his authority. The 1934 law, designed to improve land conditions after the Dust Bowl, gave the Department of Interior wide berth in reducing cattle to improve land health, the court found, and established that grazing permits are not rights but privileges that can be revoked.
Three percent of the nation's beef is produced on federal land in 17 Western states. Most is grown on farms in Texas, Oklahoma and the Dakotas.
Some environmentalists said that because of the court ruling, they will pressure local BLM offices to reduce livestock numbers.
``I think it's a significant victory for public control over public lands,'' said Sam Hitt, founder of Forest Guardians, an environmental group in Santa Fe. ``We plan to push this to the limits.''
The article from which these excerpts are given originally appeared in Mercury News.
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