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Premiere Date: July 5, 2011

Sweetgrass in Context

Ranching, Public Lands and Legislation

Increasing land legislation such as the Taylor Grazing Act and the Federal Land Policy Management Act limited the amount of land that could be used for grazing purposes, therefore increasing herding costs.

Ranching exploded throughout the Midwest and West during the 19th century, when low outlay and overhead costs meant high profits. Ranchers could make do with a couple of horses, a few cowboys and a small home base.

In 1870, there were 4.1 million beef cattle and 4.8 million sheep in the 17 western states. In 1900, the same area supported 19.6 million beef cattle and 25.1 million sheep. As a result of the boom, the lands quickly became overgrazed, overcrowded and depleted, and stakeholders began pushing for solutions to the problem.

Ranchers could acquire up to 1,120 acres of land under homesteading laws, but that acreage was insufficient for even small-scale farming. To protect their livelihoods, some ranchers used barbed wire (which, by 1880, had become accessible and inexpensive) to fence in public land areas they commonly used. They sometimes fenced hundreds of thousands of acres. Others would try to gain control or possession of much-needed water sources. Homesteaders often "squatted" on the land claimed by the cattle ranchers, leading to frequent disputes. Other parties also fought to be heard. Native American tribes who had lived on the Western lands for hundreds of years claimed the landscape as sacred and the railroad tycoons lobbied to extend their railroads across the countryside. Sheepherders became especially unwelcome as sheep grazed the precious grass to the roots. The battle for the West became one of clashing cultures and disparate views.

Congress tried and failed to establish order in the West in the early 20th century. Then the drought and depression of the early 1930s presented another opportunity to enact change, and in 1934 the Taylor Grazing Act was passed, followed by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. Ranching in the United States changed dramatically.

The Taylor Grazing Act

The Taylor Grazing Act, passed in 1934, created federally recognized boards to manage parcels of public land, divided into "grazing districts," in local communities.

According to the act, locals in the livestock industry could petition the Secretary of the Interior to have a local grazing district created. If the petition was accepted, a board would be formed that would manage permits, leases for land and improvements to the range.

The increased regulation of public lands encouraged operators to purchase or lease land — leading to expenses that pushed some ranchers out of business. Those who received permits to graze on public lands were given stability and security, and the fees they paid went in part to improving fencing, water sources and vegetation on the land.

Overall, public grazing land was reduced to levels many considered sustainable and good for the recovery of the land, but the measures also reduced resources for migratory cowboys and other workers in the ranching industry.

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), passed in 1976 and amended in 2001, aimed "to establish public land policy; to establish guidelines for its administration; to provide for the management, protection, development and enhancement of public lands."

By the 1970s, predominant concerns regarding land use had changed. Population increase in the United States meant that people were trying to use the land for more diverse purposes — including recreation, mining and hunting — while growing concern about the environment led to new considerations, such as endangered species management and wilderness protection. As demands from all sides increased, grazing terms and conditions became increasingly restricted, with the FLPMA providing detailed guidelines on how land could be managed for multiple uses.

Overall, the decrease in grazing resources led ranchers to invest labor and funding in alternative grazing management practices, increasing operating costs.


In Montana, where Sweetgrass takes place, public lands issues are handled today by the Montana Grass Conservation Commission, a governor-appointed board whose mission is to conserve, protect, restore and facilitate the "proper" utilization of grass, forage and range resources. The board organizes and administers state grazing districts and promotes cooperation among the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and state districts.

About one third of Montana’s area is dedicated public land, with about 30 million acres divided into 27 grazing districts.

» Mapes, Lynda V. "Grazing on Public Land: Helpful to Ranchers, But Harmful to Habitat?" The Seattle Times, July 28, 2008.
» Minor, Joel. "Battle for the Wild West: Sacred Landscape or Exploitable Commodity?" Cipher Magazine, February 2011.
» State of Montana. "Montana Grass Conservation Commission."
» U.S. Department of the Interior. "History of Public Land Livestock Grazing."
» U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, and Office of the Solicitor. "The Federal Land Policy and Management Act, as Amended."

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