Idaho Officials Reject Grazing-Fee Increase, Costing Schools

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho officials on Tuesday rejected a plan to raise grazing fees on state-managed land, costing K-12 public schools more than $530,000 annually.

The Idaho Land Board voted 2-2 to defeat the proposal, with Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra voting against the plan, citing concerns by ranchers who said drought was hurting their businesses.

“I think, like in education, teachers are the experts, and I believe ranchers are the experts,” Ybarra said.

The move to stick with the current grazing fee formula appears to call into question whether the state’s top statewide elected officials are meeting their constitutional mandate as Land Board members to maximize profit from state lands over the long term. The current grazing rate formula not only doesn't raise fees, it cuts them.

The formula has been in place since 1993, leading to concern that it's outdated and that ranchers aren't paying their fair share. Grazing rates on private land in the state have nearly doubled since then, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Rates on state-owned land have lagged, dropping from about 50% of what private landowners charge to about 38%. The new grazing formula would have put it back to 50%, while the existing formula drops it to about 37%.

Republican Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and Republican State Controller Brandon Woolf backed the new grazing rate formula. Republican Secretary of State Lawerence Denney voted no, while Republican Gov. Brad Little, whose family raises sheep and cattle, recused himself from the discussion and vote, citing a conflict of interest.

Raising grazing fees has been on the board’s radar for years, and a study a decade ago commissioned by the Lands Department found the current grazing formula was likely not getting market value. But the board has avoided making any decisions, requesting more information the last three years.

Wasden said Tuesday the board failing to approve the plan was "kicking the can down the road again, and we’re applying a (grazing) rate formula that we know does not meet our constitutional obligation.”

The Idaho Department of Lands manages about 1,100 grazing leases with nearly 260,000 AUMs. An AUM, or animal unit month, is based on one cow and her calf, one horse, or five sheep or goats grazing for a month. Idaho, in part, calculates sheep grazing fees based on the price of calves.

Under the current formula, ranchers will pay $6.86 per AUM, a decrease from 2021 of $7.07. The new grazing formula would have raised that to $9.07 per AUM. The current rate for grazing private land is about $18.50.

Ybarra and Denney said Tuesday they needed more information.

Specifically, Denney wanted information on how much it would cost the state to manage grazing lands if cattle or sheep ranchers decided the new grazing rate formula made it too expensive to lease state lands. Costs would include trying to control noxious weeds and reducing the danger of wildfire from grasses.

“They're doing a lot of the management for us," Denney said. "They take care of those noxious weeds, and take care of removing some of the fuel load, and that's active management. What is our active management?"

Denney also noted that about 44% of state grazing lands are inholdings, meaning they are surrounded by land that isn't controlled by the state and have restricted or no legal access.

The arrival of wolves in the state in 1995 has added another level of complexity, ranchers and state land managers said.

Still, Idaho Department of Lands Director Dustin Miller, responding to a series of questions from Wasden, said that overall the beneficiaries that get money from state lands would come out ahead even if some ranchers decided to stop using state land for grazing.

Miller, after the meeting, said the grazing rate will probably come back before the board again next year, likely with the information sought by Denney and a potential way to phase in a new rate formula, which Ybarra said she might support.

Little, who sat out the discussion and had Denney chair the meeting during the grazing rate portion, said after the meeting he has dealt with grazing fee issues for decades.

“I've spent an inordinate amount of my time in my previous life, in my career, talking about grazing fees,” he said. “And I see nothing has changed.”

Idaho received about 5,600 square miles (14.5 million square kilometers), about 5.5% of the state’s total land base, when it became a state in 1890 to generate money for beneficiaries, mainly K-12 public schools. The University of Idaho, state hospitals for the mentally ill, Lewis-Clark State College, state veterans homes, Idaho State University and several others receive money.

The state has about 3,900 square miles (10 million square kilometers) remaining that generated, along with endowment funds, nearly $90 million for beneficiaries in the current fiscal year.

Timber harvest on state lands generates the most money. Grazing leases are expected to generate just over $2 million, or about $1.8 million after expenses. Outside of timber, grazing generates the most money from state lands, followed by residential real estate.