updated 11/1/2005 11:01:16 AM ET 2005-11-01T16:01:16

Federal agencies spend at least $123 million a year to keep public lands open to livestock grazing, according to a government report that environmentalists say bolsters their argument that grazing should be limited.

“If we are going to allow grazing on our public lands, the very least we should be doing is we should be recovering the costs,” said Greta Anderson, a Tucson, Ariz., botanist and the range restoration campaign coordinator for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Jim Hughes, deputy director of the Bureau of Land Management — which, with the Forest Service, manages 98 percent of grazing permits — said the agency charges a fee set by law and is not advocating a change or an increase.

“We have many programs that cost us more ... to operate than we take in,” Hughes said. “It’s never been our mission to be run totally like a business.”

Ranching on the millions of acres of public lands has been a mainstay of western life for more than a century. Ranchers pay a fee often based on the amount of grass and other vegetation their cows will eat. The agencies spend the money on managing permits and leases, building fences and developing water projects, among other activities.

The arrangement increasingly has caused friction as more demands are put on western lands. Environmentalists question whether taxpayers should support public lands grazing.

According to the analysis released Monday by the Government Accountability Office, grazing fees cover only about a sixth of the cost of managing the program.

In 2004, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and several other agencies spent $144 million and generated just $21 million from grazing fees.

Ranchers who hold public lands grazing permits get a deal, paying as little as $1.43 per animal unit month — the amount of forage a cow and her calf can eat in a month — according to the GAO.

Jeff Eisenberg, executive director of the Public Lands Council, which advocates for ranchers, said the numbers in the report don’t represent the whole picture. The benefits of maintaining a way of life and keeping land free from development are difficult to quantify, he said.

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