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A Good Time to Remember History of Public Land Decisions

By Clint Krebs

As I mentioned in the June issue of Sheep Industry News, sheep numbers peaked in the United States in 1882 at around 52 million head. Just before that, the National Wool Growers was formed in 1865 to deal with industry issues, such as poor and unstable prices, demands by society to change grazing practices, predation – and open and free markets for wool and lamb. This took place while sheep numbers were still growing rapidly, a situation that, unfortunately, would soon change.

The passing of the Homestead Act was one of the first big drivers in this change. Instead of having huge areas of grazing land with no private ownership, the country was converted to farms and ranches.

One of the components of the Homestead Act was the concept of “Open Range.” I am sure the NWGA worked hard to get this included in legislation. “Open Range” required people to fence their private property if they didn’t want someone else’s livestock grazing it. It leaves the liability for any damage caused with the private landowner and not with the owner of the livestock. It is interesting this concept has withstood the test of time, and is still the law over much of the West, but it was also expanded into other areas. The law required a homeowner to fence his yard if the homeowner didn’t want the neighbor’s dog to cross it, and required construction sites to erect barriers to keep people away from places where they might get hurt.

The Homestead Act was the driving force behind getting the country settled by giving land ownership to people who could live on the land for three years. But there were some faults with it, and one of the biggest faults was the small size restriction – 160 acres in most cases. This was probably a size that worked well in the more productive farm lands of the east and Midwest, but as the settlers moved west they moved into climates, soil types and different areas where they could not survive on 160 acres. The land was just not capable of producing enough resources for a family, so many homesteads were abandoned or sold, and ranches were formed with enough size to be successful.

However, there were still large areas of unclaimed land that was being grazed by nomadic sheep and cattle operations. There was much competition for these areas and it lead to many range wars. It also led to large areas being overgrazed. This would lead to the next big change for the sheep industry: the Taylor Grazing Act. The Taylor Grazing Act basically created what we refer to today as “Public Lands.” The Taylor Grazing Act organized the grazing, mining and timber harvest of all of this “un-homesteaded” land. Ranches paid a fee to graze legally, and the government controlled the grazing by setting standards to insure the health of the land.

There have been many legal challenges to the TGA, but, just like the Homestead Act, it has also withstood the test of time. Public land grazing permits are a big part of ranches in the West today. They are bought and sold, they are controlled by range management experts and, in my opinion, they are providing the open spaces our country needs to protect.

As for current events, decisions to close public land sheep grazing that may or may not affect bighorn sheep are all being made by people without the knowledge of history. Just like the NWGA 150 years ago, ASI is working to support all sheep producers by educating the people who make legislative decisions about our industry. But as our government gets further removed from the land, the job becomes more difficult.

It should be a concern of every American that special interest groups have the power to influence policies that have been the backbone of how our country was settled and what led for it to be prosperous

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