After the Civil War, Congress passed The Homestead Act, which gave anyone willing to settle West 160 acres (Robbins 2016). This Act facilitated the issue of overgrazing on public land because the policy was designed to promote settlement, not to preserve the biodiversity of the arid, western grasslands. The unregulated grazing led to compacted soil, depleted plant populations, and polluted streams and rivers (Bureau of Land Management 2016). In 1934, Congress passed The Taylor Grazing Act (TGA), creating grazing districts. These districts divided the public lands into allotments and required ranchers to obtain permits to graze their livestock (Maughan 2014). With the passage of this law came better data collection allowing for better grazing land management policies. The policies helped increase land productivity and decrease erosion through fencing and water projects. These projects were backed by scientific data that determined the land’s carrying capacity and thus how many animals could be sustained on the grazing allotments (Bureau of Land Management 2016). The carrying capacity of the land determined the rules that accompanied grazing permits. These regulations outlined when and where livestock could be grazed in order to decrease pressure on the grassland ecosystem and prevent harmful overgrazing (Maughan 2014). The agency that created and policed these regulations would eventually be known as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which currently resides within the Department of the Interior (Bureau of Land Management 2016).
Until the 1960s and 1970s The TGA sufficiently improved water quality and ceased grassland degradation, but the expectations for conservation, including on grazing land, increased. With new demands for wildlife conservation across the country, congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, along with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA) targeting public and grazing lands specifically, to protect sensitive species and ecosystems (Bureau of Land Management 2016). The FLPMA specified that “the BLM’s mission is to manage and conserve the public lands for the use and enjoyment of the present and future generations under a mandate of multiple use and sustained yield,” meaning that their policies should take into account the many different stakeholders and focus their regulations on long-term sustainability (USDOI 2001). After the passage of the FLPMA came the Public Rangelands Improvement Act of 1978 (PRIA). This act created a formal plan for setting grazing fees on federal land in sixteen states, including Nevada. This formula for establishing fees has kept the price of grazing permits far below the prices of private landowners. This act also created the system of granting ranchers permits for ten-year periods of time with the ranchers being charged for each (AUM) which is the amount of forage needed to feed one cow and one calf, five sheep, or one horse (Glaser et al. 2015).
To put all of these laws and regulations into perspective and to gain a greater understanding of why there may be contention around public land management in Nevada, we must understand how much land is actually managed by the Federal Government. As of 2014, the Federal Government controlled nearly 625-million acres of land in the United States, which is almost 30 percent of the total land area of the country. Of these 625-million acres, the BLM controls 175-million acres, making it the largest land manager of all the federal agencies (Maughan 2014). The BLM manages 39,331,000 acres of grazing land in Nevada, the most of any of the eleven western states in the continental United States (Glaser et al. 2015). In 2002 it cost an average of $10.50 per AUM to graze on private land in Nevada, while it cost $1.35 per AUM to graze on federal lands (Glaser et al. 2015). That public grazing fee remained $1.35 per AUM in 2014, when there were 2,135,701 active AUMs on BLM grazing districts in the state of Nevada (Glaser et al. 2015, Bureau of Land Management 2014). Those AUMs made up 19.4% of the public active grazing permits of fourteen western states, the largest percentage of any one of the states (Bureau of Land Management 2014). With so much of Nevada being public land designated for grazing and with so many people ranching on this land, the policies around grazing in Nevada will affect a large number of people in many different stakeholder groups.
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