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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 9/13/10

Alan Simpson, Social Security, and the Welfare Barons of the Livestock Industry

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Message Bill Willers
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Alan Simpson, co-chair of President Obama's Deficit Commission, likens Social Security to "a milk cow with 310 million t*ts." But Simpson, a Wyoming rancher, is certainly familiar with a welfare "tit" that is a con game of continental magnitude maintained for "permittees," mostly ranchers like himself, who lease grazing allotments on America's public lands.
This fleecing carried out on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land and national forests is immense in scope. BLM alone has 18,000 permits on 157 million acres -- an area equal in size to Montana and Wyoming combined. In addition, the Forest Service manages 93 million of its public forests for some 8,000 permits.

Although this land belongs to all Americans in common, it's managed primarily for a minority of permittees producing just 3% of the nation's beef. Cowboy history notwithstanding, cattle are not suited for ecosystems of the West. As Donald Peters put it in 1990, "Trying to fit European cattle into arid North American ecosystems is like putting a size-12 foot into a size-8 shoe." Aside from the well-documented ecological damage wrought by domestic livestock, and their displacement of wild native animals, the financial setup alone should incense taxpayers.

Here's the rub: Permittees pay a fraction of the market. The unit used for grazing livestock is an "Animal Unit per Month" (AUM), equal to a cow and her calf (or five sheep). To graze livestock on private land, the current market now runs about $20, but permittees pay $1.35, so $18.65 for each AUM that should go into the federal till is compensated for by U.S. taxpayers -- a sum running into the hundreds of millions of dollars a year. How ironic that many haters of "big guv'ment" are major-league welfare recipients.

Permittees who understand their favored status have tried to maintain anonymity. In Simpson's home state of Wyoming, for example, permittees sued when the U.S. Forest Service released their names, claiming infringement on their privacy. Putting it bluntly, we citizen taxpayers who own the public land are not supposed to know the identities of those we're bankrolling.

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This unjustifiable system is maintained by powerful permittees and western politicians. So back to Alan Simpson, a former U.S. Senator and a powerhouse in the party that coined the term "welfare queen" and that has its sights set on eliminating, or "reforming," hated entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

As for "entitlement," permittees have a strong sense of it, as permits have been so routinely renewed for generations that permittees have come to consider the land their own. Permittees have used grazing permits as collateral for loans, ranches have been marketed as if allotments are a permanent part of the ranch, and citizens are sometimes run off of our own public land by permittees.

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There's a telling passage on the BLM's web page that the grazing program "provides livestock-based economic opportunities in rural communities while contributing to the West's, and America's, social fabric and identity." The "economic opportunities" are for the minority of beneficiaries. And "social fabric/identity" is tortured spin for a program that subsidizes the lifestyle of wealthy ranchers. But BLM bureaucrats are just following orders, making it clear in their first sentence that they apply the program "as guided by Federal law."

Bottom line: Alan Simpson, co-chair of a federal Committee aimed at reducing expenditures, should not be allowed to overlook this program that has long since outlived any possible usefulness simply because it's a plum on his turf. The Deficit Committee has an opportunity to do away with this ecologically destructive giveaway that has too long been a millstone around the collective neck of taxpayers.

 

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Bill Willers is emeritus professor of biology, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh

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Alan Simpson, Social Security, and the Welfare Barons of the Livestock Industry