Public Land Ranching Subsidies Increased During Megadrought

Increasing amounts of government assistance are being doled out, with no public notice, to preserve and increase cattle grazing on public land in the Desert Southwest during the ongoing megadrought.

The recent history of livestock management on Arizona’s Tonto National Forest is one example. The Tonto includes about 2,964,308 acres of public land, and despite being called a forest, about 27% of it, or 791,284 acres, is hot and rugged Sonoran Desert. From 2000 to 2002, toward the beginning of the still ongoing drought in the Southwest, the Tonto ordered its grazing permittees to remove almost all of their cattle from the Forest. (By 2002 Arizona had experienced two of the driest winters on record, back-to-back, and six of the previous seven winters had brought below-normal precipitation.) The common sense decision to remove the cattle helped protect the Forest’s publicly owned natural resources, which include the watersheds of five large surface water reservoirs that help supply the City of Phoenix.

Most of the Tonto is in Gila County, so the removals affected many members of the Gila County Cattle Growers Association (GCCGA), although the drought would have forced them to drastically reduce their herds anyway. The reduction in cattle numbers barely caused a blip in the county’s overall economy. But the GCCGA took advantage of their grossly disproportionate political influence to help persuade Congress to add a provision to the 2002 Farm Bill which made it possible for public land ranchers to receive financial assistance from the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). This resulted in the Tonto National Forest EQIP Pilot Project, which issued the first EQIP cost-sharing “conservation” contracts to public land ranchers in the country in 2004. The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) awarded more than $1.5 million in EQIP assistance to Tonto ranchers that year. And since then, EQIP assistance for public land ranchers in Arizona, and across the West, has grown to many millions of dollars annually.

The State of Arizona also provided a new financial assistance program for its public land ranchers during that time. In 2003 the Arizona Legislature created the Livestock & Crop Conservation Grant Program (LCCGP) which gave priority to grant requests submitted by public land ranchers. One of the program’s intended purposes, in fact, was to provide the ranchers with the matching funds they needed in order to qualify for EQIP assistance. In other words, by pairing LCCGP and EQIP money, ranchers could finance ranching infrastructure projects with no out of pocket expenses – all while paying a below-market federal grazing fee.

Subsequently, the Tonto National Forest signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in May 2004 with the Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association and Gila County Cattle Growers Association which superseded the Forest’s 2001 rangeland drought policy. It described an agreed upon “Restocking Process” and stated that the removal of cattle would become the “last resort” of the Forest’s drought strategy for livestock management. The memo also said that this new policy would be presented to the Forest’s grazing permittees during a joint meeting on June 3, 2004. The general public was not provided with an opportunity to provide input on the MOU, or attend the subsequent permittee meeting.

This type of private agreement between the Forest Service and its grazing permittees on Arizona’s national forests wasn’t a new thing. The agency’s Southwestern Regional Office, for example, signed an MOU in 1990 with the Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association regarding livestock management procedures for the state’s six national forests. Arizona conservationists sent a letter to the regional forester on April 19, 1993, complaining that the MOU didn’t comply with the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), which requires public access to advisory committee meetings. On June 10, 1993, the regional forester responded with a letter wherein he admitted that the MOU didn’t comply with FACA, so he had cancelled it. But there were strong rumors that a revised MOU or some type of agreement with the ranchers was privately completed later that year.

The Salt River 6 Grazing Allotments

There are many grazing allotments on the Tonto where government assistance has recently helped increase authorized livestock numbers. The stories of the six grazing grazing allotments located along the Salt River upstream from Theodore Roosevelt Lake are good examples. They are the Chrysotile, Dagger, Haystack Butte, Hicks-Pikes Peak, Poison Springs/Sierra Ancha, and Sedow allotments – the Salt River 6. (In 2013 the Forest issued a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for the Salt River 6 allotments. But the DEIS was retracted on February 17, 2015.)

Roosevelt Lake
View of Theodore Roosevelt Lake from Tonto National Monument, Arizona (Jeff Burgess)

The tables below show the government assistance distributed since 2002 to the ranches which grazed these six allotments. This type of data is difficult to collect, even though it’s public information, and there was likely more, so these are at least the amounts that were awarded.

Government Assistance For Ranchers Program Key
AALB - Arizona Livestock Loss Board, Arizona Livestock Loss Board (federal/state)
AWPF - Arizona Water Protection Fund, AWPF Commission (state)
ECP - Emergency Conservation Program, USDA’s Farm Service Agency (federal)
EQIP - Environmental Quality Incentives Program, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (federal)
The EQIP program absorbed the NRCS Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) after 2014.
EWP - Emergency Watershed Protection, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (federal)
The Arizona EWP Drought Program was discontinued in 2001 after a critical audit.
HPC - Habitat Partnership Committee, Arizona Game & Fish Commission (state)
Arizona Heritage Fund, Arizona Game & Fish Commission (state)
LCCGP - Livestock & Crop Conservation Program, Arizona Department of Agriculture (state)
Note: Open Space Reserve Grants became LCCGP Grants after 2002.
LFP - Livestock Forage Disaster Program, USDA’s Farm Service Agency (federal)
LOFFAP - Livestock Operator Fire & Flood Assistance Program, Arizona Department of Agriculture (state)
LRP - Landowner Relations Program, Arizona Game & Fish Department (state)
PFWP - Partners for Fish & Wildlife Program, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (federal)
WHREF - Wildlife Habitat Restoration & Enhancement Fund, Arizona Game & Fish Department (state)
This fund was created by a one-time $3.5 million appropriation by the Legislature in 2006.
WQIG - Water Quality Improvement Grant, Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (federal/state)
Note: These grants were previously called Section 319 nonpoint source (NPS) water pollution prevention grants.
Griffin Cattle RanchM Bar K RanchO Bar O RanchRafter Cross RanchRafter P RanchRockin Four Ranch
Griffin Cattle Ranch (Griffin Cattle Ranch LLC) - Sedow Allotment
2002OSR #58*$33,729
2005LCCGP #05-44$100,000Livestock Water and Fencing
2007LCCGP #07-34$100,000Livestock Water and Fencing
2009LCCGP #09-45$75,000Restoration-Conservation-Resource Enhancement
2011LCCGP #11-26$77,332Fencing, Grassland Restoration, Livestock Water
$1,243,801TOTAL 2002 - 2023
* Open Space Reserve (OSR) grants became LCCGP grants in 2005.
NOTE: In 2020 $65,784 in federal Burned Area Rehabilitation (BAR) funds were approved to help rebuild livestock fences & waters damaged in the 2020 Salt Fire. The money was shared among six grazing allotments, including this one, in the Tonto National Forest's Globe Ranger District.
The current allotment management plan was completed in 1979.
M Bar K Ranch (M Bar K Cattle Co., LLC) - Chrysotile Allotment
2002OSR #13*$77,350
2007LCCGP #07-71$125,000Livestock Water and Fencing
2009LCCGP #09-85$100,000Livestock Water and Fencing
2011LCCGP #11-54$125,000Livestock Water and Erosion Control
$915,204TOTAL 2002 - 2022
* This assistance was received by the ranch’s previous owner, Howard J. “Pinky” Norris. Open Space Reserve (OSR) grants became LCCGP grants in 2005.
NOTE: In 2020 $65,784 in federal Burned Area Rehabilitation (BAR) funds were approved to help rebuild livestock fences & waters damaged in the 2020 Salt Fire. The money was shared among six grazing allotments, including this one, in the Tonto National Forest's Globe Ranger District.
The current allotment management plan (AMP) was completed in 1984.
O Bar O Ranch (Earnhardt Ranches LLC) - Dagger Allotment
2000AWPF #99-083$263,225Lower Cherry Creek Rehab
2011-2014LFP$35,609John Sowers
2011LCCGP #11-69$125,000Conservation Project
2015-2016EQIP$38,516Joshua Roundy
2019-2020LFP$45,764Joshua Roundy
$508,114TOTAL 2000 - 2020
The government assistance listed above benefited previous owners John & Sarah Sowers (2010-2015) and Joshua Roundy (2015-2023).
NOTE: In 2020 $1,478 in federal Burned Area Rehabilitation (BAR) funds were approved to help rebuild livestock fences & waters damaged in the 2020 Meddler Fire. The money was shared between the adjacent Black Mesa & Dagger grazing allotments.
Grazing was reauthorized on the allotment in 2010 after many years of nonuse, and new pastures were added to the allotment in 2015. The current allotment management plan (AMP) was completed in 1981, when the allotment had a different configuration.
Rafter Cross Ranch (J Bar B Cattle Co. LLP) - Campaign & Poison Springs Allotments (Tonto NF), Wildcat Allotment (Apache-Sitgreaves NF)
1992BOR$73,9801992 AMP for Campaign allotment
1999EWP$37,888Paid to Take Cattle Off the Land During Drought
2006Heritage Fund$10,000Campaign Creek Riparian Fence
2006 - 2016EQIP$207,576Campaign allotment $133,096
Wildcat allotment $74,480
2015-2016LFP$198,402Campaign allotment $142,264
Wildcat allotment $$56,138
$527,846TOTAL 1992-2020
*NOTE: In 2020 $276,940 in federal Burned Area Rehabilitation (BAR) funds were approved to help rebuild livestock fences & waters damaged in the 2020 Griffin Fire. The money was shared between the adjacent Poison Springs & Hicks-Pikes Peak grazing allotments.
An allotment management plan (AMP) for the Poison Springs allotment was completed in 1987, long before the current boundaries of the Poison Springs allotment were set in 2017. The Campaign allotment's current AMP is the proposed action described in its 2011 (EA). The 1992 AMP was funded by a grant from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation as part of a mitigation plan for the local wildlife habitat that was flooded when the height of Theodore Roosevelt Dam was increased.
Rafter P Ranch (Rafter P Ranch LLC) - Haystack Butte Allotment
2011LCCGP #11-67*$100,000Allotment Improvements
2018LRP$12,000Rafter P Ranch Dirt Tank Improvements
2019HPC #18-605$50,000Livestock Water
$810,248TOTAL 2007 - 2023
* This assistance was received by the ranch's previous owner Joshua D. Smart.
The current allotment management plan was completed in 1982.
Rockin Four Ranch (Rockin Four Ranch LLC) - Hicks-Pikes Peak Allotment
2008 - 2019EQIP$231,089 
$353,194TOTAL 2008-2020
NOTE: In 2020 $276,940 in federal Burned Area Rehabilitation (BAR) funds were approved to help rebuild livestock fences & waters damaged in the 2020 Griffin Fire. The money was shared between the adjacent Poison Springs & Hicks-Pikes Peak grazing allotments.
NOTE: In 2020 $65,784 in federal Burned Area Rehabilitation (BAR) funds were approved to help rebuild livestock fences & waters damaged in the 2020 Salt Fire. The money was shared among six grazing allotments, including this one, in the Tonto National Forest's Globe Ranger District.
The current allotment management plan was completed in 1992.

This government assistance, which totaled more than $3.5 million, helped to fund ranching infrastructure projects that significantly increased the number of cattle on these allotments during the continuing drought. (See the annual operating instructions (AOI) available from this site’s Public Land Grazing Document Library for recent authorized livestock numbers on these allotments.)

Furthermore, these range “improvement” projects were implemented with little use of the NEPA public planning process, even though the existing allotment management plans were obsolete. Instead, significant livestock management decisions were made in piecemeal fashion using NEPA categorical exclusion memos, grazing permit modifications, and “trial” cattle number increases. Thus, the general public had little idea what was going on, and no opportunity to submit feedback or objections.

The Government Money Just Keeps Flowing

In 2008 Congress responded to growing requests from Western ranchers for more drought assistance by creating the Livestock Forage Disaster Program (LFP). The LFP is administered by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) and provides financial assistance to ranchers when the U.S. Drought Monitor declares that a region is drought stricken, even if the area is desert. Ranchers who cannot graze their public land allotments as the result of wildfires are also eligible for LFP payments.

The continuing drought has resulted in millions of dollars in LFP payments to Arizona ranchers, and many other ranchers across the West. Sometimes these ranchers have received LFP assistance during the same years they received EQIP. For example, the tables above that list the government assistance which benefited the Salt River 6 ranches show that four of them received EQIP and LFP during the same years.

And there’s little doubt that the Tonto’s strategy for managing livestock grazing during the ongoing drought will continue to emphasize the use of government subsidies. For example, on May 3, 2018, Forest Supervisor Neil Bosworth sent a letter to permittees about the Forest’s drought strategy and promised that, “my staff will focus efforts to approve critical range infrastructure needed to utilize available forage.” The Forest subsequently held an emergency NEPA categorical exclusion meeting for drought response range projects. The supervisor’s drought letter wasn’t publicly released, and the general public wasn’t invited to the emergency meeting.

Moreover, in September 2020 the Arizona Silver Belt newspaper in Globe reported on a meeting of the Gila County Cattle Growers Association wherein the ranchers discussed the problems they were dealing with because of the wildfires that had burned about 288,000 acres of land in county during 2020 – most of it on the Tonto. (Bigger and more frequent wildfires in the Southwest are another product of drought and climate change.) It was reported that the Forest’s Range Program Manager Chandler Mundy told them that the Tonto had requested $543,000 in federal Burned Area Rehabilitation (BAR) funds to acquire ranching infrastructure materials like fencing and pipeline, to help replace those that had burned on their grazing allotments. A representative from the NRCS was also in attendance and encouraged the ranchers to apply for more EQIP assistance. And a representative from the FSA encouraged them to apply for more LFP, along with the Emergency Conservation Program, and the Livestock Indemnity Program.

How Much Will Taxpayers Have To Pay?

These under-the-radar livestock management decisions that facilitated the investment of millions in government assistance for the Salt River 6 ranches during the drought weren’t a unique occurrence – it’s been the recent norm on public lands in the Southwest. Many other ranches on the Tonto also received large amounts of government assistance during the ongoing drought with little public notice. During this time the Forest even authorized grazing to resume on some areas that hadn’t been grazed in many years, including the Bar X Ranch , Cartwright Ranch , and Circle Bar Ranch .

These increased cattle numbers negatively impacted local wildlife habitat during the drought. It can be partially understood by comparing cattle and wildlife animal unit months (AUMs). An AUM estimates how much forage a grazing animal eats in a month. For example, a cow grazing for a month equals 1.0 AUM, while an elk is only 0.6 AUM, a mule deer only 0.20 AUM, and a white-tailed deer only 0.15 AUM. In other words, one cow has the same impact as five mule deer.

And this situation certainly wasn’t unique to the Tonto National Forest. It was the same on public land all across Arizona and much of the West. It’s exacerbated by the fact that there are no needs tests for these government assistance programs – even wealthy ranchers are eligible for them. For example, the table below shows the Bar T Bar Ranch, Inc., which holds the permit for the Coconino National Forest’s Bar T Bar grazing allotment. Its owners benefited from lots of government assistance, while in 2012 they were also able to purchase another ranch, the Black Rock Ranch, for $1,228,920. (It included the Arizona BLM Safford District Office’s Flying Butte allotment and Arizona state grazing lease #05-000305.)

Bar T Bar Ranch (Bar T Bar Ranch, Inc.) - Bar T Bar (FS) and Flying Butte (BLM) Allotments, State Leases #05-001339, #05-000305
1999EWP$79,558Paid to Take Cattle Off the Land During Drought
2005LRP*$285,000Juniper Tree Removal
2005LCCGP #05-81$150,000Grassland Restoration & Livestock Water
2007WHREF*$649,552Help Remove Pinyon Pine & Juniper Trees
2010HPC #09-201$15,000Cleanout Dirt Tanks
2011HPC #10-203$24,000Prescribed Burns To Kill Juniper Trees
2014HPC #13-204$32,000Cut Down Juniper Trees
2015HPC #14-214$5,349Water Drinker Replacements
2017HPC #16-211$31,920Cut Down Juniper Trees
$4,180,630TOTAL 1999 - 2023

* This was shared with the Flying M Ranch , the other member of the Diablo Trust.
WHIP was absorbed by the EQIP program after 2013.

It’s obvious that, unless the situation changes, U.S. taxpayers will be on the hook for continually increasing amounts of government assistance to public land ranchers as the megadrought in the Desert Southwest likely continues and intensifies due to climate change. In fact, some scientists are no longer calling it a drought, but permanent aridification. The situation is especially egregious in a state like Arizona, which is mostly desert that’s inherently unsuited for livestock grazing.

The absurdity of the federal government’s current drought strategy for managing livestock grazing on public lands in the arid West is highlighted by the fact that public ranchers are simultaneously receiving EQIP to maintain grazing and LFP because it’s not sustainable. It’s time for Congress to stop throwing good money after bad by reducing subsidies for public land ranchers. They can start by raising the public land grazing fee to the market rate, as the federal fee has been only $1.35 per cow per month since 2020.

Furthermore, they should allocate money to a fund that would be used to fairly compensate ranchers who are willing to voluntarily relinquish their grazing permits so their allotments can be permanently retired. And in the meantime, federal land managers should stop initiating grazing on vacant grazing allotments and unused pastures during drought.


On January 21, 2021, the Tonto National Forest Supervisor issued a letter to the Forest’s grazing permittees wherein he acknowledged the growing severity of the drought, but promised them, “I commit to not requiring removal of all cattle from the Tonto Forest as a forest-wide decision.

On September 7, 2022, the Globe District Ranger issued a decision notice to implement a new allotment management plan (AMP) for the Hicks-Pikes Peak Allotment. A primary feature of the proposed AMP was to initiate livestock grazing on a large pasture located along the south bank of Salt River that hasn’t been grazed for more than 20 years. The pasture, which is located in the Salt River Canyon Wilderness, is primarily Sonoran Desert. The grazing would be facilitated by the construction of a nearly six-mile-long fence along the river, in some places as close as 100 feet, to keep cattle out of the river when the pasture is used. The construction of the fence would likely be partially paid for with government financial assistance – like most livestock fences and waters that are being built on public land these days.

On October 31, 2022,  the Tonto National Forest Deputy Supervisor issued a letter wherein he announced his intention to extend the time to review the several objections received in response to the Hicks-Pikes Peak decision until no later than January 9, 2023, due to the “many contentions” included in the objections.

On November 9, 2022, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue the Tonto National Forest for its violations of the Endangered Species Act because of inadequate livestock management on multiple grazing allotments.

On January 6, 2023, the Tonto National Forest withdrew its decision for the Hicks-Pikes Peak grazing allotment in response to the substantive issues raised in the objections it had received.

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