Document Type



Environmental Law




Domestic livestock grazing is naturally in tension with wilderness. Wilderness areas are not truly "untrammeled by man" when they host managed livestock grazing. Yet the compromise that allowed livestock grazing in wilderness areas was surely one of the greatest in the history of the conservation movement. Without it, Congress might never have passed a wilderness bill or designated countless wilderness areas throughout the country. The grazing exception--and the Congressional Grazing Guidelines that afford specific protections for grazers--made it possible to secure bipartisan support for wilderness bills in even the most conservative western states.

Notwithstanding this success, the ecology of some wilderness areas would plainly benefit from reducing or removing livestock, and modest changes to current law could accommodate such reductions without undermining the essential compromise that has allowed wilderness to flourish. In particular, as livestock grazing has declined in importance to the economy and the culture of the western public lands states, opportunities abound for the voluntary retirement of grazing rights. Unfortunately, the law has not yet evolved in a manner that can assure that the voluntary retirement of grazing rights can be made permanent. Without such assurances parties interested in purchasing grazing rights to protect wilderness areas are unlikely to step forward.

This article reviews the history and legal status of livestock grazing on the wilderness lands. It includes a brief review of the beneficial and adverse impacts of livestock grazing on the ecological health of land systems and how those impacts might compromise wilderness values before discussing federal grazing policy, especially as applied to wilderness areas. It concludes with a modest plea to clarify the authority of the BLM and the Forest Service--the principal federal land management agencies--to reduce or remove livestock from wilderness lands where necessary to protect public lands resources, and to retire wilderness grazing rights permanently, where the existing permittee willingly accepts an offer to purchase such rights.