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Letter to the Editor:

The January 29 Rapid City Journal carried an opinion piece by Sam Hurst criticizing ranchers who are opposed to designating the public lands in the Indian Creek area of the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands as wilderness. Hurst stated that ranchers who hold permits to graze livestock on public lands are “welfare ranchers”, subsidized by the federal government to compete against ranchers who don’t happen to have grazing permits.

My husband and I own a ranch and have a livestock grazing permit on the National Grasslands. I worked for ten years managing the grazing associations in Jackson and Eastern Pennington counties. As a “welfare rancher”, I would like to respond to some of Hurst’s claims.

First, it is true that the grazing fee is less than $2.00 per cow/calf pair per month. In 2005, we paid $1.90. It is also a fact that permits are not allotted on a competitively bid basis. Hurst uses the analogy that being a “welfare rancher” is like owning a business in town, selling the same product as your competitor, but being subsidized by your competitor’s tax dollars.

Not quite. A better analogy is one I read during a debate a few years ago. Holding a permit to graze livestock on public lands is like renting an unfurnished apartment. Let’s say I pay $200 for the same size apartment as my neighbor down the hall, who pays $2000. I provide my own furnishings and pay utilities. If my plumbing quits working or I need other improvements, I pay half and can take nothing with me when I move out.

My landlord, Uncle Sam, decides when I can use each room and for how long. I can’t negotiate with him to use the kitchen at dinnertime when I need it. Uncle Sam hired a capable manager to work with me, but she’s hamstrung. She gets written instructions from Uncle Sam every few years. The instructions are the same for all unfurnished apartments, whether they are high rises or single units. My neighbor can talk to his landlord face to face to resolve problems.

The general public has a right to use the apartment I rent whenever they want. If they leave the door open and some of my stuff is missing, it’s my fault. I should have made the door easier to close. I also have mice and a mold problem. Uncle Sam wants the mice for his favorite cat. He spent more money on that thing than he has on all the apartments in my neighborhood. He agrees the mold is a problem, but his staff doesn’t have much time to deal with it. I am not allowed to deal with it myself, so I live with it. My neighbor gets pretty mad when the problem reaches his place.

To leave the analogy, Hurst is dismissive of permittees who “improve” the land (his quotes). Many miles of pipeline and fence were constructed on the public lands in the grazing districts I managed. If these ranchers had done these “improvements” on their private land, it would have been considered a capital improvement and have increased the value of their land and their net worth. “Improvements” on public lands belong to the public, and the permittees know they can lose the use of them.

Hurst also says that the Forest Service doesn’t sell permits. This is true. But when people speak of “buying permits”, they are talking about the increased price of base property that must be purchased to acquire a permit. Having gone through this process, I can assure you the government did not subsidize the purchase of our ranch. If anyone would like to become a “welfare rancher”, there are ranches for sale right now that have permits associated with them.

Hurst also envisions the benefits of bidding on grazing permits as generating revenue for staff to manage the public lands, eradicate weeds, and many other good things. There are already staff to do all this. One of the things stopping them is the public, all with different ideas of how the land should be managed, and ready to back up their notions with lawsuits.

Come to think of it, maybe I really am a “welfare rancher”. If you look at my standard of living, which is about on par with most ranchers, my family qualifies as low income. I think it’s worth it, even if we do have to take heat from people who would rather attack us personally for holding a grazing permit than address the wilderness issue on its own merits.

/s/Mary Poss, Philip, SD 57567