Federal grazing fees were in the spotlight last year during the Senate race between Deb Fischer and Bob Kerrey.

But hopes were dashed recently that the attention might lead to action on the long-ignored issue.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management made clear that the issue made a quick return to obscurity when it announced that federal grazing fees will stay at the minimum allowable level for the seventh consecutive year.

That’s too bad. The debate on the issue is not the most momentous facing the country, but it deserves attention.

One problem is that the grazing fee program is one of the many federal programs that are draining the U.S. Treasury. A 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office estimated that the costs of the program in 2004 were about $144 million, but the government collected only $21 million in fees.

Presumably, the disparity between costs and revenue is even greater today.

Grazing fees are paid by ranchers for the right to let their cattle graze on public land.

Back in Wild West days, ranchers paid nothing for that right, but after overgrazing became a chronic problem, the federal government stepped in -- mostly at the request of ranchers themselves. The current grazing fee program is the result of that federal intervention.

Given the program’s historical roots, it’s no surprise that the BLM described its role this way in a news release this year: “Livestock grazing on public lands helps maintain the private ranches that, in turn, preserve the open spaces that have helped write the West’s history and will continue to shape this region’s character in the years to come.”

As the nation’s population has grown, conservation groups have begun pushing to limit the program in favor of managing the land for the benefit of wildlife and preservation of natural resources. Katie Fite, biodiversity director of the Western Watershed Project, said the unrealistically low fees represent a huge subsidy added to the “the cost of water lost, fouled, wildlife habitat lost, etc.”

Currently, the federal fees are set according to a complicated formula devised in 1978.

Congress should consider a simpler option: Let people bid for grazing rights at auction.

In Nebraska, rights to use about 1 million acres of state-owned “school land” are auctioned by the Nebraska Board of Educational Lands and Funds after it sets a minimum price.  In Nebraska, that results in grazing fees estimated to be more than 10 to 30 times higher than those charged by the federal government.

In fact, Nebraska in 2010 collected $14  million for grazing on its relatively paltry 1 million acres. The federal government allows grazing on 155 million acres in the wide-open American West, and collects only $21 million. The federal government should set fees the Nebraska way. It could use the money.