Taylor Grazing Act

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When railroads were built across the American West after the Civil War, livestock producers found it profitable to turn cattle and sheep onto the unfenced plains, where they grazed without fee on public lands. For decades overcrowding and the consequent denuding of grasses generated tension between cattle and sheep producers and between stockmen and homesteaders. In the early 1930s declining livestock prices increased reliance upon free grazing. At the same time, drought caused water holes to dry up, vegetation to shrivel, and the region's deteriorated soils to drift eastward in the form of dust storms.

In 1928 a group of stockmen had collaborated on a proposal to merge public and private holdings with state and railway grant lands in a project for range improvement in southeastern Montana. They obtained congressional legislation authorizing withdrawal of the public lands from further settlement and directing the secretary of the interior to lease tracts to stock producers who owned adjacent lands and who would agree to meet prescribed management regulations. The resulting range improvement there and in several similar ventures set a precedent for extending the program to public lands generally. As the drought conditions worsened, Representative Edward T. Taylor of Colorado assumed sponsorship of such a proposal, and the Taylor Grazing Act was passed by Congress. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the measure on June 28, 1934.

A landmark in the history of American public land policy, the Taylor Grazing Act virtually terminated the free homestead program initiated in 1862. The secretary of the interior was authorized to establish grazing districts over no more than 80 million, later amended to142 million, acres of "vacant, unappropriated, and unreserved lands from any part of the public domain (exclusive of Alaska) . . . chiefly valuable for grazing and forage crops." A few other exclusions were enumerated, together with reservation of areas needed for owners of adjacent land to drive their stock to market or to other properties, tracts lying within watersheds forming part of the national forests, and areas within grazing districts that the secretary might classify as "more valuable and suitable for the production of agricultural crops than native grasses and forage plants." As a consequence, the number of homestead entries declined from 7,741 in 1934, to 609 in 1937, and to less than 500 any year during the following decade.

The secretary was further authorized to issue permits for running livestock in grazing districts upon payment of "reasonable fees," with preference to those within or near a district who were "landowners engaged in the livestock business, bona fide occupants or settlers, or owners of water or water rights." Permits were to run for ten years, renewable at the discretion of the secretary. Fees were low, far less than the rates for privately rented grazing property or for grazing leases in public forest reserves. Congressional opposition withheld adequate funding for administrative regulation or range improvements. Some increase of water facilities by the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s and the introduction of crested-wheatgrass seeding in 1940 were the most notable early achievements. In response to a Senate inquiry the secretary of the interior reported in 1962 that conditions over the past seven years showed only 1.6 percent of the ranges excellent, 15 percent good, but 53.1 percent fair, 25.8 percent poor, and 4.5 percent bad.

As interpreted and applied until the mid-1960s, the Taylor Act was focused almost solely upon conservation for grazing. With the development of environmental concerns, however, a series of measures for safeguarding public water supplies, protecting endangered species, and limiting use of pesticides for weed control had to be implemented. A requirement for environmental impact statements necessitated greatly increased administrative appropriations and led to higher grazing fees. Litigation ensued, particularly over determination of fees and interpretation of grazing preference. Although the U.S. Supreme Court generally upheld the administration of the Taylor Act, opposition increased. Disgruntled stockmen complained of government control and rising fees, and in 2000 a symposium of environmentalists declared a National Campaign to End Public Lands Grazing.



Gates, Paul W. History of Public Land Law Development. 1968.

Mackey, Mike. "Wyoming Stock Growers and the Taylor Grazing Act." Journal of the West 35, no. 3 (1996): 18–25.

"Save Our Public Lands—End Public Lands Grazing." A Declaration from the RangeNet 2000 Symposium. Available at http://rangenet.org/rn2k/declaration.html

Whitlock, Clair M., and Larry L. Woodard, eds. Taylor Grazing Act, 1934–1984: 50 Years of Progress. 1984.

Mary W. M. Hargreaves

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