Western Rangelands Reform: An Analysis of the 1996 Senate Vote on Federal Grazing Fees

Article excerpt

JON P. NELSON [*]

Grazing of livestock on public lands is a controversial environmental issue, despite a long history of federal regulation of this activity. Environmentalists and economists have argued that grazing fees charged by the Bureau of Land Management subsidize livestock operators and that higher fees would help bring rangeland usage in line with environmental and economic goals. In 1996, the U.S. Senate voted to determine whether higher fees would be charged for use of federally owned land. Based on a theoretical model, probit regressions are used to analyze this vote with respect to the influences of the general electorate, special interests, party affiliation, senatorial preferences, and electoral security. We find that political competition among producers utilizing federal lands was a crucial factor in determining voting decisions. However, environmental interests had a smaller direct impact on the grazing fee vote. (JEL Q24, Q18)

I. INTRODUCTION

Grazing of livestock on public lands is an environmental issue that has been the topic of political and economic debate for several decades. In 1996, the U.S. Senate considered legislation that would establish higher grazing fees on federal lands, an issue that pitted ranching and environmental interests in the use and management of western rangelands. The League of Conservation Voters (LCV; (http://www.lcv.org)) singled out this issue as one of the Senate's major environmental votes of 1996. The objective of this article is to analyze the Senate's vote on grazing fees as a test of the economic theory of legislation as applied to environmental issues. There are several reasons why this issue is of interest for economic analysis. First, grazing issues are often cast in the context of the "jobs versus the environment" trade-off. This trade-off receives considerable attention in the popular press but has been largely overlooked in the academic literature on voting. More generally, federal grazing fees use subsi dies as a way of "creating" jobs (Hess and Holechek, 1995). Second, congressional votes on grazing fees and procedures are potentially affected by several special interest groups, including Western ranchers holding low-cost grazing permits; non-Western livestock interests; other users of federal lands (recreation, tourism, energy, mining, forestry, waste disposal); and environmental interests (wilderness, biodiversity, wild horses, endangered species, cultural preservation). One possible outcome is that Western ranchers are pitted against an uneasy coalition of conservation-preservation and special-use interests. Third, previous empirical voting studies tend to support the notion that legislators systematically find it in their self-interest to concentrate benefits and spread costs widely. Hence, Peltzman (1984, 184) argues that the larger and more defined the wealth stakes in a vote, the more important are constituent characteristics.

Although public land policies were important in national debates during the early part of the twentieth century, these policies received less attention after the 1930s (Calef, 1960; Culhane, 1981; USDI, 1977). The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 established the Grazing Service (later Bureau of Land Management, BLM), and gave existing livestock ranchers formal recognition of previously informal privileges through a system of grazing districts, advisory boards, land allotments, permits, leases, and low-cost grazing fees (Libecap, 1981). The criteria for permits gave preference to ranchers who owned nearby land, held water rights, and who were using federal rangelands. Permits were authorized on a ten-year renewable basis, and grazing rights could be transferred to a new owner if the private land was sold. This gave ranchers limited, but relatively secure, property rights in grazing on public lands (Lambert, 1995). Hence, grazing rights are capitalized into the value of private lands, and permit values are recognize d as an asset by lending institutions and the Internal Revenue Service (USDI, 1977, 3-8). …