Republican U.S. Senate candidate Deb Fischer and her husband, Bruce, are among a handful of Nebraska ranchers whose cattle graze on federal land at prices some say amounts to a significant federal giveaway.
Fischer, a state senator from Valentine, is running as a fiscal conservative who wants to reduce the size of the federal government. She argues she will make the "tough choices" in Congress to cut the nation's budget.
As a rancher, Fischer has benefited from a federal program that environmentalists and others describe as an expensive subsidy that needs to be trimmed or eliminated.
The Fischers lease 11,724 acres of federal land in north-central Nebraska for about $4,700 for seven months — paying about $110,000 less than the market rate for private land in Cherry County.
Fischer defended the federal grazing program, saying ranchers help the government manage federal land. She also said the family follows all federal regulations and doesn't have a say in how much it is charged.
"We don't negotiate a price. The price is set," said the lawmaker, who was raised in Lincoln and moved to the Sand Hills after marrying rancher Bruce Fischer.
Managing federal lands for the grazing program costs federal taxpayers about $140 million a year and the government collects about $21 million in grazing fees, according to a 2005 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Program critics, including the Nebraska Wildlife Federation, would like to see grazing fees put up for public auction or otherwise adjusted nearer to market value. Others would like to see all cattle removed and the land managed entirely for native wildlife and the broader public.
The last major effort to increase federal grazing fees failed in Congress in the 1990s after ranchers fought a proposal by then-President Bill Clinton to overhaul the system.
Few ranchers in Nebraska hold federal grazing rights. Only 136 of Nebraska's 20,000 beef producers hold them.
Only 2 percent of the cattle raised in this country feed on federal lands, said Andy Kerr, a spokesman for the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, which would like to see federal grazing eliminated.
Kerr said candidate Fischer should give up her family's permit if she wants to be "morally consistent."
"This is just a little microcosm example of why the federal government is running in debt. Fiscal responsibility starts at home," he said.
Neither of Fischer's top Republican opponents — Attorney General Jon Bruning and State Treasurer Don Stenberg — would comment for this article.
Many families hold grazing rights for decades. The Fischer family in rural Valentine has held some form of federal grazing rights in the McKelvie National Forest as far back as 1959 — long before Deb married into the family in 1972 — according to U.S. Forest Service records.
Fischer and her husband acquired their own grazing rights in the early 1970s.
Deb Fischer said it's not fair to compare the costs of federal grazing rights with private leases. Ranchers who lease federal land have requirements and responsibilities beyond those of people who lease private land.
For example, the Fischers are allowed to run cattle on the land only seven months out of the year and are told exactly how many head of cattle are allowed.
They also are required to follow federal grazing guidelines, and the number of cattle allowed can be reduced during droughts.
"In dealing with the federal government, there is no negotiation. The price is set. And they control the days you can be there and the number of cattle," Fischer said.
The Fischers are allowed to run 671 cow-calf pairs for four months in the summer and 330 cow-calf pairs for three months in the fall and winter.
Asked if the grazing rights should be put up for public auction, Fischer said she would have to research the matter.
"I try to be open-minded on all issues," she said.
The federal government's approach to leasing its lands stands in stark contrast with Nebraska's.
Land owned by Nebraska is leased to farmers and ranchers at nearly market value, said Cort Dewing, a field representative of the Nebraska Board of Educational Lands and Funds.
A big part of Dewing's job is to follow the market in Cherry County and other areas of north-central Nebraska to determine how much to charge for state land.
It is difficult to compare a state lease with a federal fee. The state allows its tenants to have control of the land for the entire year, while the federal government limits how many months per year a rancher has access to its land.
In addition, the state charges by the acre. The federal government charges ranchers based on the number of head of cattle allowed on the land.
Currently, the Fischers and other federal permitholders across the nation pay $1.35 for every month a cow-calf unit grazes on U.S. Forest Service land.
In contrast, the average price paid to a private landowner to graze a cow-calf unit in Cherry County is between $32 and $37 a month, Dewing said.
At $32, the Fischers would pay $117,000 to lease the federal land for seven months.
Fischer said it's difficult to compare federal land with private land. The land on McKelvie is of poorer quality than most private land. She also pointed out that unlike private leasers, the federal government requires the family to maintain fences and wells.
Generally the federal government pays for half the cost of new improvements to the land, such as fences and wells, but ranchers are required to pay the entire cost to maintain the improvements, said Lora O'Rourke, rangeland management specialist for the Forest Service.
Federal land rights are a big part of the Fischers' ranching operations. The family owns about 10,000 acres in Cherry County and leases 11,724 acres in the McKelvie National Forest.
The family runs the entire operation under the name Sunny Slope Ranch, a company owned by Deb and Bruce Fischer and their three adult sons.
Deb Fischer said the ranchers and the federal government both benefit from the nation's grazing system.
Said Fischer: "The ranchers I know that have federal grazing lands . they are good stewards. They improve the range on those lands."
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