The investigative reporting team at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism failed to provide all the facts about ranching in Arizona and the realities of how “grazing fees” on State Land are discovered. In their July 7th, 2019 Arizona Republic article, titled “Arizona Charges Less than almost Anyone Else to Graze Cattle,” they failed to ask some key questions and one in particular.
Arizona is a unique state and we are fortunate that during the creation of the State Enabling Act individuals had the foresight to not only create State Trust Lands but also to make sure they would last for generations to come, providing economic value to 13 beneficiaries as well as economic opportunities for rural communities once the highest and best use became available.
Allow me to provide some history. In 1996, the Grazing Valuation Commission supplied a report that created a formula that would drive the lease rate based on a factor that is the difference between the “new” five-year average beef price index and the “old” five-year average. This is based on the price of beef and reflects movement in the market. When beef prices are high, the rent goes up, and vice versa. The Commission’s formula has continued to properly set lease rates that reflect current cattle markets.
Comparing the rangeland and grazing styles of Arizona to other western states does not reflect an accurate picture of any ranch in Arizona, let alone Nevada or Montana. While arid climate is a challenge here in the southwest, Arizona’s ranch families work hard to be outstanding stewards of the land. The proof is in the multiple generations of families who have raised livestock on the ranches of their forefathers. Arizona is not a powerhouse in the United States when it comes to raising cattle on the open range, but the ranching industry is very important for our rural communities and our state.
In addition to paying the State Land lease in Arizona, it’s required that the leaseholder be responsible for all improvements (fencing, corrals, water infrastructure). After approval by the State Land Department, these permanent fixtures are owned by the leaseholder and enhance the value of the land. A State Land Lease would be the equivalent of an individual leasing a lot in a subdivision but you are required to build the house if you want to live on the land. You would certainly pay less for the lease than if you were to rent a home that was built and management took care of up-keep for you.
Additionally, Arizona’s mixed use of land ownership can be problematic. Over 85% of ranches in Arizona have additional leases with the State Land Department, Bureau of Land Management or United States Forest Service in order to operate a business that is economically viable. Grazing is just a small part of the State Land Department’s duties and one that actually returns a public benefit through education funding which is not realized by federal land agencies. State Trust Lands are an asset for us all and one that will continue to provide for future generations.
The Department is not in the business of grazing cattle; they have a greater responsibility to manage a land portfolio of 9.2 million acres, which is no easy task. Over time, they are responsible to make sure the land is ready to be used by the private sector at the highest and best use. The act of grazing cattle on State Land is the best tool for over 8 million acres, enhancing the value of the land, maintaining open space, and creating benefit for rural economies while providing funds for education.
The Investigative reporters should have asked the question: Is the State Land Department equipped with the tools and resources to maximize the output of a 9.2-million-acre Trust? It’s the responsibility of the Executive and Legislative branches to ensure that the State Land Department is equipped with the tools and resources to perform its mission: “To manage State Trust lands and resources to enhance value and optimize economic return for the Trust beneficiaries, consistent with sound business management principles, prudent stewardship, and conservation needs supporting socio-economic goals for citizens here today and future generations.” For decades, Arizona ranching families have supported and protected the mission of the Trust in the courts, at the legislature, and at the ballot box. Ranching families are paying stewards of this precious resource that is only suitable for grazing until further economic opportunities become available.
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