Why Is Livestock Grazing Still Permitted in Federal Wilderness Areas?

Most Americans don’t know that livestock grazing is allowed in wilderness areas on public lands, and if they find out, they are usually upset and want to know why – because it doesn’t make any sense.

The National Wilderness Preservation System was promoted by Pres. John F. Kennedy and subsequently created when Congress passed the Wilderness Act of 1964, which defined wilderness as “an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain” and “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.” The legislation also prohibited certain activities in wilderness areas, including no permanent roads and “no commercial enterprise.”

Livestock grazing, however, was allowed to continue “where established prior to the effective date of the Act” and “subject to such reasonable regulations as are deemed necessary.” Obviously, ranching is a commercial enterprise that is inherently contrary to the definition of wilderness, but ranchers had the political clout back then to prevent the creation of wilderness areas unless grazing was allowed to continue in them.

Since then, Congress has created many more wilderness areas on the nation’s public lands, including those created by the Arizona Wilderness Act of 1984 and the Arizona Desert Wilderness Act of 1990. Ranchers succeeded in having the protection of preexisting livestock grazing included in the laws that created the new wilderness areas too.

Consequently, the appropriate management of livestock grazing in wilderness areas has been an issue. Proposals for new wilderness areas in 1979 prompted the U.S House of Representatives to issue Report No. 96-617 that became the Congressional Wilderness Grazing Guidelines. They were referenced in U.S. House Report No. 101-405, that was produced in response to the proposed Arizona Desert Wilderness Act of 1990.

The congressional guidelines made it clear that grazing “established prior to the effective date” meant grazing that was ongoing the year a wilderness area was created. They also explained that:

  • “It is anticipated that the number of livestock permitted to graze in wilderness would remain at the approximate levels at the time an area enters the wilderness system.”
  • “The construction of new improvements should be primarily for the purpose of resource protection and the more effective management of these resources rather than to accommodate increased numbers of livestock.”

But these guidelines haven’t stopped attempts to increase grazing in wilderness areas. In September 2022, for example, the Globe Ranger District of the Tonto National Forest issued a draft decision for the Hicks-Pikes Peak grazing allotment, which includes a portion of the Salt River Canyon Wilderness, created by the Arizona Wilderness Act of 1984. (This upper stretch of the Salt River, above Roosevelt Lake, has also been deemed eligible for designation as a Wild & Scenic River.)

Livestock were excluded along the upper Salt River on the Tonto in the late 1990s in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act by protecting the river’s important Sonoran Desert riparian habitat. On the Hicks-Pikes Peak allotment, that meant no grazing in the allotment’s Ortega and Lower Shute Springs pastures, which border the river in the wilderness.

The 2022 draft decision for the allotment would have implemented the Proposed Action Alternative described in the accompanying environmental assessment (EA), which would have facilitated the resumption of grazing in these pastures by constructing miles of new livestock fences along the river. The fence proposed for the Lower Shute Springs pastures, for example, would have been almost five miles long. The decision would have also authorized the construction of numerous other new ranching infrastructure projects in the pastures.

Moreover, it would have authorized a maximum of 650 to 800 adult cattle to graze the allotment yearlong, along with up to 700 to 1100 yearlings for seven months. That would have translated to up to about 14,220 animal unit months (AUMs) per year. The allotment’s 2022 EA didn’t identify the number cattle that were grazing the allotment in 1984, when the Salt River wilderness was created. However, there’s a 1992 allotment management plan (AMP) that’s technically still in effect because the Globe Ranger District has failed several times to approve a new one. It states that the authorized use of the allotment then was 1,000 adult cattle yearlong, or 12,000 AUMs – about 19% less than what was in the 2022 draft decision.

Fortunately, the Tonto National Forest withdrew the 2022 draft decision for the Hicks-Pikes Peak allotment on January 6, 2023, in response to objections filed by conservationists. The withdrawal notifications explained that a new and better EA should be drafted for the allotment. As of April 2024, however, the project still wasn’t listed on the Tonto’s schedule of proposed actions (SOPA).

An Equitable Solution

Congress should finally end the tyranny of the minority they gave ranchers in 1964 by passing legislation to eliminate livestock grazing in wilderness areas. There are a variety of ways to accomplish it. First of all, grazing should be permanently prohibited on any currently vacant grazing allotments located in wilderness areas. Allotments stay vacant for a reason – usually because they wouldn’t be profitable enough to graze. But the vacant allotments are still legally vulnerable to the reauthorization of grazing. Also, existing grazing permits for allotments in wilderness should not be renewed when they expire. (A standard grazing permit has a 10-year term.)

Ongoing grazing in wilderness areas could also be phased out through a grazing permit buyout program, wherein permittees are paid to voluntarily surrender their permits so their allotments can be permanently retired. This isn’t a new idea, in 2002 public land ranchers in Arizona worked with conservationists to craft the Arizona Grazing Permit Buyout Campaign. It had significant local support, including at least nine Arizona public land grazing permittees, but it failed to gain national political attention.

Still, Congress has passed numerous bills that authorized voluntary grazing permit retirements in specific local situations. It’s proven to be a good strategy, so in November 2023 U.S Representatives Jared Huffman (D-CA)and Adam Smith (D-WA) introduced the Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act (HR 6314) to allow permit retirements on all Western public lands. It wouldn’t allocate any federal funding to encourage ranchers to surrender their permits, but would rely upon private organizations to provide incentives. The bill is still awaiting a hearing in the House Committee on Natural Resources, despite being a common sense solution and having the support of numerous environmental organizations.

mouth of Peralta Canyon
View from the mouth of Peralta Canyon, Superstition Wilderness, Tonto National Forest, Arizona (Jeff Burgess)

One thought on “Why Is Livestock Grazing Still Permitted in Federal Wilderness Areas?

  1. Thank you for mentioning the Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act (HR 6314) and U.S Representatives Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Adam Smith (D-WA) the two sponsors of the bill in the 118th congressional session.
    I am personally learning to follow bills. Following bills like the Equal Rights Amendment “S. J. Res. 4 (in 118th congressional session) – A joint resolution removing the deadline for the ratification of the equal rights amendment.”
    One point I have observed: Not ONE Republican MALE has co-sponsored this bill in the 116th, 117th, and 118th congressional session. Women were excluded from our United States Constitution. Alice Paul started the ERA in December of 1923. So this is the 100 year anniversary. Virginia, the 38th state ratified, in January 27, 2020. President Trump could have had as his legacy (2020 was 100 year anniversary of women getting the right to vote) putting women in our US Constitution. We are only 7 senators away from “constitutional equality” and ending the sub-ju-GATE.

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