The term grazing rights refers to a rancher’s ability to allow livestock to feed on an area of land they do not own. During the early settlement of the United States, the idea of open grazing was not an issue because of the extensive amount of available land. Rising populations, increased land ownership, and deterioration of the ecosystems resulted in federal legislation of grazing rights in the United States. Similar issues make grazing rights a problematic topic in countries around the world.
Shared grazing land is just one example of a "common-pool resource," frequently referred to as the "commons." The idea of a common grazing area for livestock originated in England, where it is still employed today. However, because the resource is shared, the temptation to exploit the common area is always high.
For example, consider an area of land shared by five ranchers, each of whom has three heads of cattle. The land the ranchers are sharing, the commons, can easily support fifteen animals grazing every day. Eventually one of the ranchers will want to add animals to his herd. When this happens, the other rancher’s cattle have slightly less grazing area. However, the other ranchers do not share in the wealth of owning the additional heads of cattle. They only share the in the reduction of the commons.
Soon the ranchers realize the person who owns the most animals will benefit the most. As more animals are added to the commons, the land’s ability to regenerate is severely affected until it is eventually unable to support any livestock. This is known as a tragedy of the commons, a term first used by a biologist named Garrett Hardin in 1968.
In the United States, overgrazing became a major problem when cattle were placed on lands previously dominated by the American buffalo, or bison. The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, signed by President Roosevelt, was intended to prevent further injury to the ecosystem. Approximately 65 million acres (about 263,000 square kilometers) were covered by the Taylor Grazing Act, and the idea of grazing rights was introduced in the US.
A key feature of the Taylor Grazing Act allowed federally identified grazing lands to be leased to ranchers for a specified period of time. However, some critics claim the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Forest Service have mismanaged these areas. Critics point out that as of 2009 these areas are only producing 50% of the forage plants they produced prior to the 1800s. Some also cite the low cost of leasing lands for grazing as part of the problem — $1.35 US Dollars (USD) per animal unit per month in 2009.
Environmental groups in the US have now begun leasing large tracts of federally protected grazing areas. However, instead of opening the land for grazing rights, they prevent it and allow the land to "rest." Environmental groups claim that allowing these areas to recover fulfills the intended purpose of the Taylor Grazing Act — preventing erosion, fires, soil degradation, and the ongoing desertification of the western part of the United States. The practice has proven highly effective in Arizona and several other US states.