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Published March 19, 2012, 10:10 AM

Where is the fairness in grazing law

WALL, S.D. — I’d like to respond to the opinion “Land grazing fee already fair” that appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of Agweek. For whom? Certainly not to taxpayers and those ranchers who can’t obtain public grazing rights.

By: Glen Lakner, Agweek

WALL, S.D. — I’d like to respond to the opinion “Land grazing fee already fair” that appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of Agweek. For whom? Certainly not to taxpayers and those ranchers who can’t obtain public grazing rights.

With a private animal unit month (AUM) going from $25 to $35 and a U.S. Forest Service AUM at $1.35 in my area, the method used to calculate an AUM is a sham.

We’re in ranching on the same spot I was born, and at 82, I have seen and heard how this fraudulent process evolved. It got its start in the 1930s, when the drought and depressed crop and livestock prices drove people off the land. The county, also needing money, sold (virtually gave) the land to the feds. The Bureau of Land Management ended up with some and the Forest Service got the rest.

The locals who stayed used the land for years, paying nothing. When the Forest Service and BLM wanted rent, the “trespassers” formed a grazing association and demanded they rent it to them. They claimed “prior usage” (really theft). After that, anytime another rancher wanted cheap, public AUMs, they were refused membership. My father didn’t take part in the “free pasture,” preferring to ranch and farm honestly. When I started on my own in 1957, I too was refused membership.

I became curious in later years what the lessee had to do to qualify for the lease. It was necessary to contact the Forest Service in Washington, D.C., and evoke the Freedom of Information Act to find out who had each allotment and how many AUMs were in each one. However, the Forest Service refused to disclose what was done by each lessee to comply, citing article 4 of the FOIA, which protects “trade secrets and commercial and financial information from a person that is privileged. Like it’s OK to rip off taxpayers — we won’t tell.

The BLM puts the two allotments in the Sturgis, S.D., area up for bids every three years. When it received this land it accepted that requirement. The Fort Meade, S.D., one was $22.60 and the Bear Butte, S.D., one was $30.26. Previously, an individual paid $36 for both. That’s a long way from $1.35 per AUM.

The new South Dakota agricultural land valuation law that is supposed to value ag land on profitability also is a sham. Two parcels of land of equal size and similar soils will be valued the same even if one has 1,000 AUMs on public land and the other has none. It also has no allowance on the cost of inputs.

Five ranchers own 64 percent of the land in my township (72 square miles). The remaining 36 percent is owned by 12 owners. These five ranchers all have AUMs on Forest Service land. The rest do not. It’s not difficult to see how this came about.

This goes along with the government insurance program for pastures, where the fee is the same whether you have 1,000 acres or 10,000 acres.

Same old story: the big get bigger and the small disappear, all encouraged by the government.

Editor’s Note: Lakner is from Wall, S.D.

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