Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

The coming of the spring brings, besides the buttercups and the north wind, the debate over privately owned livestock grazing on public lands.

This dispute is revived annually when the federal government announces the year's grazing fee.

For 2013, as in the previous six years, that charge is $1.35 per AUM - animal unit month, the amount of forage a cow and her calf will eat in a month.

Critics pounced on this announcement, pointing out that $1.35 is the lowest fee the feds can legally charge.

"It represents another huge form of subsidy to public lands ranchers who are already massively subsidized by us all," Katie Fite, of the Western Watersheds Project in Idaho, told The Associated Press.

Maligning the welfare rancher is, of course, a popular refrain among groups that don't care for livestock grazing regardless of how much the government charges. That minimum fee is merely a convenient focus for their disdain.

But notwithstanding the exaggeration of the slur, the repetition of that "massively subsidized" line prompted us to consider what the citizens of the U.S., who own the land where cattle graze, are getting out of the deal.

Quite a lot, actually.

Beef cattle is a $50-million-a-year business in Baker County alone. And a majority of the county's cattle spend part of the year on public land grazing allotments.

Those public lands, then, are integral to producing products - beef, of course, but a variety of other bovine byproducts - that America consumers want.

Grazing foes lament the negative effects livestock have, including dirtying streams and spreading noxious weeds.

Fite describes this as the "exploitation" of public lands, a word with a nasty connotation that would be valid only if land once grazed was unsuitable for any purpose. This clearly is not the case, as grazing allotments support not only livestock but an array of flora and fauna, and recreation ranging from hunting to bird-watching.

Although grazing can have more noticeable effects on the land than, say, hiking, it also produces a much greater economic benefit. That's not exploitation - it's wise use of a resource that belongs to all of us.