The sheriff of Harney County, Oregon met with the leader of the armed occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and offered a way to end the takeover fiasco. The sheriff offered a "safe escort" out of the increasingly untenable situation. Congress should follow the sheriff's pragmatic gesture and offer all federal public lands ranchers the opportunity to be compensated for voluntarily relinquishing their grazing permits. Such a program would cost the taxpayers nothing and, in fact, would reduce the losses of the program that currently costs at least seven times what it brings in in grazing fees.

The concept is simple: Congress would enact a law that says if a public lands grazing permit holder voluntarily relinquishes their permit, the federal public lands covered by the permit would never again be grazed by domestic livestock. The forage would be reallocated to ecosystem and watershed goods and services. Private parties could compensate the permittees for their donations in order to incentivize transfers in sensitive areas and the land would stay in the public domain, providing ecosystem benefits and ending the management deficit for all Americans.

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Voluntary permit retirement has been authorized in a few areas of the west already – the Boulder-White Cloud Wilderness of Idaho, the California Desert Conservation Area, Oregon Caves National Monument. Why not offer it to all permittees?

Public lands grazing permittees often blame government regulations designed to protect the water quality and wildlife habitat for their troubles. In reality, those regulations are very rarely enforced. The demographics of public lands livestock operations are changing as well with the average age of a permittee hovering close to the average age of retirement. Why not give these seniors a “Golden Saddle” that would allow permittees to reconfigure their ranching operations without depending upon the increasing problematic use of public lands, invest in new enterprise, or ride comfortably into retirement?

The Rural Economic Vitalization Act (REVA), a bill recently reintroduced by Rep. Adam SmithAdam SmithDems warns Trump nuclear push would suck money from budget Treasury chief's global debut will reveal much about his trade stance Today's less-competitive markets would anger Teddy Roosevelt MORE (D-Wash.) would address this issue and allow permittees to voluntarily relinquish their permits to the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service in exchange for compensation. Then the federal government could permanently retire those grazing permits, returning the land for wildlife, recreation, and other non-livestock uses.

We don't believe that Bundy and his buddies should get a free pass on their attempt to overthrow the government, but we do think that livestock operators should be offered an exit strategy from public lands grazing through voluntary permit retirement. It’s just the type of win-win solution the West needs right now, and Congress needs to step up.   

Osher of Western Watersheds Project (westernwatersheds.org) has been working for years to pass national permit retirement legislation in Congress.  Kerr of The Larch Company (www.andykerr.net) has helped facilitate several relinquishments of grazing permit retirements from willing sellers.