Don't fall out of your chair. The Federal government just announced it is turning down a five-year-old petition from an environmentalist coalition to raise grazing fees. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management sent separate responses to the environmental groups this week.

This is no surprise, our headline notwithsanding, because raising the grazing fee has long been one of the highest priorities -- and most unsuccessful efforts -- of a small, but persistent group of critics and opponents of public lands grazing. They see it as a major subsidy of environmentally destructive livestock activities. In their press release announcing the decision not to raise grazing fees, the environmental groups noted that the Government Accountability Office has said that taxpayers pay at least $115 million annually for public lands grazing. 

"Today's long-awaited answer was a huge disappointment," said Greta Anderson, Arizona director for the Western Watersheds Project, one of five groups that had filed the 2005 petition. "Year after year, we watch as the government gives a sweetheart deal to public lands ranchers at the expense of taxpayers and the environment. We had hoped the Obama Administration would have done better, but it's business-as-usual for the western livestock industry.

The ranching industry, however, has long defended the fee, which has stayed for four years at $1.35 per cow grazed monthly on public land, as legitimate, although it's much lower than comparable grazing fees on leased private land. The ranchers have said that is because on private land they don't have to pay nearly as much for fencing and other improvements as they do to graze public land--although the feds do pay for some of those improvements from time to time.

Politically, they've been able to keep the fee from rising much for many years, dating back to the mid-1990s when they stopped then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt from raising the fees just after President Bill Clinton took office. It was that effort that led to the perception among some Westerners that Clinton was waging a War on the West, that helped make many Western states red politically for a long time.

"The Arizona Cattle Growers Association is not surprised by the attack from the Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians and others on western ranch families and their attempt to destabilize the cattle industry," the association said in a statement this week. "For multiple years these environmental groups have continually sued the government over procedural matters to make it increasingly difficult for western ranch families to make  a living providing beef for the American consumer. We commend the Obama Administration for their response to the environmental groups and dismissing their ludicrous claims of subsidized grazing only to disrupt the western economy."

In reply, Anderson attached the "ludicrous" tag to the association's statement that claims of subsidization are "ludicrous." Grazing permittees can dip into numerous federal programs to build water developments, fences and additional infrastructure at taxpayer expense, not to mention drought relief payments from time to time.

In its response to the enviros' petition, BLM cited a long list of what it said are higher priority issues it must tackle. They include offshore oil and gas and coal management regulations on public land. Also, BLM is investing lots of time in dealing with other rangeland issues, including the sage grouse up north and bighorn sheep everywhere, and is developing new policies and standards to revise how it collects and uses data, including vegetation data on rangelands.

"As a result of the above, I am unwilling to burden the agency's limited resources by initiating a major rulemaking at this time," wrote BLM Director Robert Abbey, adding that he is willing to reassess this issue as the administration moves ahead with its regulatory agenda.

This reporter has covered the grazing fee issue off and on for more than 15 years in the Southwest, but doesn't have the time or space to delve into these controversies in more detail today. Those wishing to look more closely at them can examine the documents on both sides, which are linked, above.