Taylor Grazing Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Taylor Grazing Act brought belated federal control of grazing to the public domain rangelands of the West and marked the end of the homestead movement and the closing of the public domain.

Summary of Event

Until the forest reserves were established in the 1890’s, the U.S. Congress envisioned an American West of cultivated, 160-acre homesteads. However, the Homestead Act (1862) failed to recognize the arid nature of much of the country’s unoccupied land. In response, the livestock industry saw opportunity and profit in the uncultivated rangelands that had been vacated by the relocation of Native Americans and the demise of the bison. Increases in U.S. population and development of the country’s railroads made commercial livestock production lucrative, and foreign capital sought profit in the new trade. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that the cattle population increased from about 8 million to more than 21 million from 1870 through 1886 in the seventeen western states. The boom was followed by a bust of dramatic proportions. Many cattle, weakened by a lack of forage from overgrazing, died in the severe winters of 1885-1886 and 1886-1887. Livestock mortality was estimated at 40 to 60 percent, and some areas reported death rates of 85 percent. [kw]Taylor Grazing Act (June 28, 1934) [kw]Grazing Act, Taylor (June 28, 1934) [kw]Act, Taylor Grazing (June 28, 1934) Taylor Grazing Act (1934) Agriculture;Taylor Grazing Act Rangelands, U.S. Cattle ranching [g]United States;June 28, 1934: Taylor Grazing Act[08680] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;June 28, 1934: Taylor Grazing Act[08680] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 28, 1934: Taylor Grazing Act[08680] [c]Natural resources;June 28, 1934: Taylor Grazing Act[08680] Taylor, Edward T. Carpenter, Farrington Ickes, Harold Roosevelt, Franklin D. [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;Taylor Grazing Act Roosevelt, Theodore [p]Roosevelt, Theodore;rangeland leasing

As homesteaders pushed West, conflicts with ranchers followed. There was no provision for acquiring grazing land under the public-land laws, and in many cases, ranchers used fraud to gain title to large areas of public land. This fraud, coupled with their foreign financing, made them easy political targets, and they were considered land barons and monopolists.

In the 1880’s, Congress ignored the recommendations made by the first Public Lands Commission to sell grazing lands in 2,560-acre parcels. Ranchers illegally fenced public lands and limited access to water resources to protect their range rights. In 1885, Congress declared public domain fencing illegal, but the practice prevailed. In 1901, the federal government prosecuted 161 cases of illegal fencing and estimated that about 2.5 million acres had been illegally enclosed. These rancher-homesteader conflicts were often apparent in state and local politics. Community boosters encouraged farming and settlement. States and railroads encouraged immigration for farming and opposed early bills that would have allowed ranchers to fence or lease public domain rangeland. Many ranchers feared any government regulation. The results were political stalemate and continued damage to the rangeland ecosystem.

By 1890, the effects of overgrazing were becoming obvious. Western soil and water resources were severely depleted, and a group of cattle and sheep ranchers began to form a consensus about the lease of public rangelands. The states of Texas and Wyoming, the Northern Pacific Railroad Company, and the federally managed Indian reservations reported success in reducing overgrazing through leasing as early as 1883. Rangeland leasing bills were introduced in Congress in 1901 and 1902, but they failed in the face of opposition from western governors and homestead interests.

Despite political risk, President Theodore Roosevelt began to support rangeland leasing proposals after the 1904 election. However, many people believed that Roosevelt was siding with monopolistic, big business interest groups at the expense of farmers, and his support of the leasing proposal was particularly opposed by irrigation and reclamation interests. Still, a provision for leasing public rangelands under the Department of Agriculture was included in the 1907 Agriculture Appropriations Bill and was at least partially responsible for the first major defeat of Roosevelt’s conservation program. The defeat precluded serious consideration of additional leasing bills until the 1920’s.

From 1909 through 1915, Congress passed a series of enlarged homestead acts that established 320-acre homesteads. Millions of acres of rangeland were plowed and sown to grain, which had disastrous consequences for the soil. Declining prices and severe drought ended the boom after World War I. In 1916, in spite of the opposition of ranchers, Congress passed a law to allow individuals to obtain 640 acres of public land that was valuable chiefly for grazing and cultivating forage crops. In the law’s first year, about sixty thousand applications were filed for some 20 million acres under the Stock-Raising Homestead Act (1916). Stock-Raising Homestead Act (1916)[Stock Raising Homestead Act] Unfortunately, it was only through firsthand experience that many applicants learned that the twenty to thirty cattle that could be supported on 640 acres of good rangeland were too few to support a family.

With the support of the livestock industry, the U.S. Forest Service Forest Service, U.S.;livestock grazing had made significant progress in controlling livestock grazing in the national forests. By establishing allotments, carrying capacities, and grazing fees, the Forest Service had brought a semblance of order to a disorderly field. In 1919, ranchers in northeastern California petitioned the government to move 400,000 acres of public domain rangeland into the Modoc National Forest.

During the early 1920’s, many ranchers supported proposals to have the Department of Agriculture administer a leasing program, but a proposal to increase grazing fees on the national forests rapidly ended their support. In 1925, a Senate committee introduced a bill that called for reform of Forest Service’s rules about grazing and leasing of the public domain. The administration and the ranchers eventually reached a compromise, and it appeared that a leasing bill would pass, but the ranchers’ rhetoric inflamed the conservationists. The American Forestry Association and the Society of American Foresters rallied opposition to the bill, and it failed. In 1928, Congress authorized an experimental cooperative grazing program in southeastern Montana. The Mizpah-Pumpkin Creek Grazing District combined lands from the public domain, the Northern Pacific Railroad, the state of Montana, and private lands and leased them to a grazing association.

In 1931, members of Congress from Utah and Idaho introduced a general public domain leasing bill after consulting with the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior and gathering support from the White House. In 1933, Congressman Edward T. Taylor reintroduced a modified version of this bill and shepherded it through the opposition’s objections, which were largely centered on contentions that the new bill unfairly favored large interest groups. Taylor also found a way to skirt the growing feud between the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior over which department would administer the public domain program. When the bill initially failed, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes threatened to withdraw the lands. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s active support of the Taylor bill also improved its chances for passage. The Taylor Grazing Act passed the House of Representatives on April 11, 1934, and a slightly different version passed the Senate on June 12, 1934. Roosevelt signed the conference committee version on June 28, 1934.


The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 marked the end of fifty years of political struggle over control of the unallocated public lands in the western United States. The act gave the secretary of the interior broad powers to control livestock grazing by establishing grazing districts and regulating the use of the public domain pending its final disposal by Congress. It also ended free access to the public range and began the process of controlling livestock grazing, firmly established local control over allocation of public rangelands, and effectively ended large-scale public-land disposals. The first grazing district was established in Wyoming in 1935, and others followed in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, and Utah. Ranchers recommended fifty districts covering 142 million acres. Since this area was larger than the one provided by the original act, in 1936 the act was amended to allow the larger area.

The effort to implement the Taylor Act was one of the most ambitious land-management actions undertaken by the federal government. Allocation of grazing privileges and fees, fencing, water development, erosion, and fire control were initiated, and in the act’s first year, the Civilian Conservation Corps Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) operated sixty camps with twelve thousand men to aid the program. In many areas, recovery from decades of abusive grazing was a stubborn problem. By the mid-1960’s, experts estimated that production in three-fourths of western ranges was at less than half of its potential.

In some areas, large reductions in livestock use were required to bring grazing into balance with carrying capacity. Organized local opposition to the reductions was often strong. To restore productivity, managers undertook forage improvement projects that often relied on clearing sagebrush and woodlands and reseeding with improved forage grasses. As the environmental movement gained strength in the 1960’s and 1970’s, range managers were often criticized for concentrating on livestock production at the expense of wildlife habitat. Protection and recovery of degraded riparian areas became a particular concern in the 1980’s.

When the Taylor Act passed, Farrington Carpenter, a Colorado rancher and lawyer, was selected to head its implementation. By the end of 1935, the Division of Grazing employed fewer than thirty people and administered 258 million acres of rangeland. Carpenter relied on local advisory committees authorized by the act. These committees allocated each district’s forage based on a complex system of historical use and adjacent private land or water to establish “preference,” which in many cases exceeded the available forage. In 1944, the Grazing Service was administering more than twenty-two thousand licenses and permits and approximately 3.8 million animal units of forage. (An animal unit is the amount of forage necessary to feed a 1,000-pound animal for twelve months.) In 1992, the Bureau of Land Management reported about 1.1 million animal units of preference and about 833,000 animal units of actual use.

By the end of the second year, the ranchers had elected 523 district advisers. The advisory boards’ role was clearly defined in a 1939 amendment to the Taylor Act: Boards were to consist of at least five but no more than twelve members to be appointed by the secretary of the interior following election and recommendation of the boards. The secretary of the interior was also allowed to add one member to represent wildlife interests. District advisory committees later elected state and national advisory committees.

The 1930’s were a period of intense rivalry between the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior. In his bid for control of the program, Secretary Ickes had promised that the Interior Department could manage public lands for $150,000 per year, and he also promised a grazing fee based on that low administrative cost. By giving the ranchers a largely autonomous program, Ickes thwarted the efforts of the Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service to gain control of the lands as the original bill was amended.

The Taylor program ensured continuing support from the Department of the Interior by relying on local advisory committees. In addition, however, more general forms of local assistance and cooperation were necessary. In some respects, this form of home rule seemed an ideal mechanism for undertaking a large-scale land-management program at a minimal cost. Advisory board members were commended as outstanding examples of citizen participation in government. In contrast, conservation groups often lacked organized, effective representation in the rural West. Amenity interests were not well protected by the ranchers, and after the growth of the environmental movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s, their absence in the decision-making process became a source of continuing conflict.

Although Taylor initiated the act that effectively ended public-land disposal, he was, like many rural westerners, opposed to a continual federal presence in the region. He generally supported decreasing the restrictions on homesteaders and was one of the authors of the 1916 Stock-Raising Homestead Act. Like many westerners, he viewed the Taylor Act as a temporary measure to stabilize the livestock industry. The clause that referred to the land’s final disposition would cause considerable consternation and political upheaval before it was finally resolved in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. Taylor Grazing Act (1934) Agriculture;Taylor Grazing Act Rangelands, U.S. Cattle ranching

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barnes, Will C. The Story of the Range. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1926. Detailed historical account of the early livestock industry in the American West.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clarke, Jeanne Nienaber, and Daniel C. McCool. Staking Out the Terrain: Power and Performance Among Natural Resource Agencies. 2d ed. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. A well-developed assessment of the rise and fall of natural resource bureaucracies in the United States. Includes illustrations, tables, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Donahue, Debra L. The Western Range Revisited: Removing Livestock from Public Lands to Conserve Native Biodiversity. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999. A controversial volume that does much to advance the debate over grazing’s costs and benefits.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foss, Phillip O. Politics and Grass. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1960. A detailed analysis of the influence of grazing advisory boards and the capture of the Grazing Service and BLM by the livestock industry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hays, Samuel P. Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959. An authoritative history of the conservation movement in the Theodore Roosevelt administration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Muhn, James, and Hanson R. Stuart. Opportunity and Challenge: The Story of the BLM. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior. Bureau of Land Management, 1988. A reasonably detailed, in-house chronology of the BLM and its predecessor organizations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peffer, E. Louise. The Closing of the Public Domain. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1951. The principal and authoritative history of the public domain in the first half of the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Department of the Interior. Bureau of Land Management. Fifty Years of Public Land Management: 1934-1984. Washington, D.C.: Author, 1984. An in-house BLM pamphlet that celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the Taylor Grazing Act.

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