Cooperation on public land debate
— Informal mediation for ranchers, federal land agencies
In 1967, Ringo Starr of the Beatles asked, “Does it worry you to be alone?” Western ranchers on public lands can feel very alone when disagreeing with federal agencies. But ranchers could benefit from Starr’s suggestion and try with a little help from their friends.
The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, and the Wyoming Stock Growers Association to a lesser extent, have standing agreements with federal land agencies regarding dispute resolution. These agreements offer members more options—for free—when dealing with disputes on federal lands.
“It’s a service that the association offers to its members,” explained Terry Fankhauser, Executive Vice President of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association (CCA), of their program.
“It is established under MOUs [memoranda of understanding] with federal agencies—BLM, the Forest Service—and it outlines a dispute resolution process whereby we do resource evaluation and we do policy and process evaluation. We facilitate that conflict resolution between the permittee and one of those two agencies.”
Fankhauser explained to WLJ that program is conducted in mostly informal ways, but is provided for by formal agreements with the agencies in the form of MOUs. Those MOUs must be renewed every few years and outline the relationship. CCA’s MOU with the U.S. Forest Service, for instance, requires the association to “establish and maintain a standing committee… whose purpose is to work with the Forest Service, BLM and permit holders to stimulate and facilitate a cooperative approach in managing and caring for the National Forests and Public Lands.”
The liaison committee and its purpose is to facilitate cooperation, communication and improved understanding between both permittees and agency personnel. A specific function outlined in the MOU is to “participate in informal resolution of conflicts between term grazing permit holders and the U.S. Forest Service.”
“Either the agency and the permittee can request it, but they must both agree upon it and abide by the rules,” Fankhauser stressed. “It’s not binding arbitration, but I’ll tell you, in my 17 years, we have come to resolution on almost every issue for the betterment of the permittee.”
Fankhauser gave examples of when mediation services are used, including anything from the grazing permit renewal processes, suggested cuts to stocking rates or timing, specific management practices, and so on.
“When sometimes there’s just fundamental disagreement that is allowed by law, we’ll go in and facilitate and visit the permit and make resource-based analysis and judgments and then work with the facilitation process,” he said.
“We’ve found ourselves saying the permittees are wrong on occasion. On some occasions, we find ourselves saying the agency’s getting something wrong. So it’s not a slam dunk for the permittee or for the agency. But what we find is, with arbitration, generally we can find middle ground that everybody can live with.”
Colorado and Wyoming are the only two states currently with this sort of agreement with the federal lands agencies. Colorado’s program is more robust and far-reaching than the one in Wyoming, however.
“We recently renewed an MOU with the Forest Service that talks about how we can collaborate and work together, but it doesn’t have any special provisions in it for mediation,” Jim Magagna, Executive Vice President of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA), told WLJ.
“It’s not a formal mediation process, per se, but it’s a commitment to come together and it has worked in the sense that if the Forest Service is having a particular problem with a permittee, or a permittee is having a problem with the agency, if either of them come to us we can rely on this to say, ‘We need to find a mutually acceptable solution.’ But it’s a pretty informal matter,” added Magagna.
When asked why more western states don’t have similar agreements between their industry organizations and federal lands agencies, Fankhauser speculated that the investment of time might be daunting.
“It’s not the easiest thing to maintain these MOUs and to maintain education to the personnel and the communication necessary to be able to encourage them to be very inviting and supportive of this process. We have to negotiate those MOUs. We have to work them through the solicitor’s office in D.C. It takes time.”
He also pointed out that one of the details that makes the Colorado program so unique—it is a grassroots people-helping-people sort of thing—is also a big commitment.
“They volunteer their time and resources,” said Fankhauser of those permittees who volunteer as mediators. “They literally volunteer their time on behalf of their industry to go do this work. That’s a big ask. They don’t get paid to do this. They do this because they know that the critical aspect of federal land grazing means that we’ve got to raise everybody up in the process. A rising tide floats all ships in this case.”
One of the key benefits of CCA’s informal mediation program is the cost; it’s free to members. Better than free, it can prevent larger costs later. When asked if the mediation process is effectively a preventative measure to litigation, Fankhauser said, “Absolutely.”
“This is a dispute resolution process by permittees for permittees. We know we can get the job done and achieve an outcome that will be helpful, but we’re not going to have somebody in the room that’s billing on an hourly rate and looking towards litigation, because we just don’t think that’s constructive. We never have that sort of burden in the dispute resolution process.” — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor