Public Lands Council addresses critical issues at annual meeting

Sep 24, 2010

The Public Lands Council’s (PLC) 2010 meeting was attended by public lands ranchers from across the West who gathered to hear updates, share ideas, and listen to agency and political representatives. Held in Pendleton, OR, Sept. 13-14, the event was bookended by the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association quarterly board meeting and the 100th anniversary of the Pendleton Round Up. Those in attendance had the opportunity to celebrate the incomparable service of outgoing president Skye Krebs of Ione, OR, who has served eight years on the PLC executive committee. Ranchers welcomed John Falen of Orovada, NV, as the new PLC president. Brice Lee of Hesperus, CO, will now fill the seat of vice president and Brenda Richards of Reynolds Creek, ID, was nominated as the new secretary/treasurer.

Without question, the most anticipated of the slated discussions addressed the Ruby Pipeline issue and PLC’s decision to negotiate an agreement with Ruby to set up a $15 million endowment to preserve and protect public lands grazing. The endowment is meant to counterbalance the $22 million Ruby contributed to create funds in partnership with the Western Watersheds Project (WWP) and the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), largely earmarked for acquisition of private property and the buyout of grazing permits.

Despite some lingering doubts, support for the endowment concept was strong within PLC membership, and PLC will proceed with negotiations with Ruby to hammer out details of the endowment. Members are optimistic that the endowment will allow the grazing industry to pursue projects and research that will strengthen their position, but were not previously affordable.

However, representatives from the Multi-County Coalition, a group of county commissioners representing the counties through which the Ruby Pipeline passes, continue to be skeptical about the wisdom of PLC’s approach.

Demar Dahl, county commissioner from Elko County, NV, and chairman of the Multi-County Coalition, represented the Coalition at the PLC conference.

Dahl explained, “We do not believe that El Paso is a friend of the (ranching) industry, despite what they said at the meeting. This agreement gives ranchers a black eye.”

Jim Cleary, president of El Paso Corporation, parent company of Ruby Pipeline LLC, was present to discuss El Paso’s position and to field questions from the audience. In a move to quell concerns that the conservation funds could be used to bankroll lobbying which could potentially undermine the grazing industry, Cleary announced that El Paso has come to an agreement with WWP ensuring that no resources from the $15 million Sagebrush Habitat Conservation Fund may be used to lobby for the overturning of or amendment to the Taylor Grazing Act. Cleary claimed that prior restrictions already prevent the $7 million Greater Hart-Sheldon Conservation Fund, co-administered with ONDA, from any such use.

John O’Keeffe, chairman of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Public Lands Committee, doubted whether this added restriction on the fund would significantly benefit ranchers since the fund will arguably free up other WWP resources that can be recruited for lobbying, instead.

“(WWP) will use other money to lobby, so it doesn’t totally make the issue go away. I think (El Paso) did what they could do under the circumstances, and we appreciate the gesture, but we’re still concerned. It’s not like the issue goes away because of that.”

Other topics of interest included the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) recently released Treasured Landscapes vision document, wild horse management, and the recent federal relisting of the gray wolf.

Jim Magagna, executive director of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association, spoke on wolf relisting. U.S. Fish and Wildlife (USFWS) delisted the wolf last year in Montana, Idaho, and parts of Oregon and Washington, but maintained the federally listed status in Wyoming as Wyoming’s state wolf management plan was not at that time deemed sufficient by USFW to protect wolf populations. In an August decision, however, U.S.

District Court judge Donald Molloy ruled that USFW’s decision to partially delist the wolf went against the Endangered Species Act. Partial populations defined along political borders cannot be delisted piecemeal; either the entire population must be delisted, or none.

This has left the burden on Wyoming to alter its wolf plan to facilitate a general delisting throughout the West. Magagna indicated, however, that Wyoming has no plans to revise its wolf plan, which they argue is based on sound science.

Said Magagna, “Wyoming has a plan that was drafted with input from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It was then amended on specific requirements that USFWS said we needed. And it was then approved by the USF- WS, and wolves were delisted in Wyoming. We’ve worked with them, we’ve had their support all along, until Wyoming’s plan was appealed in front of Judge Molloy. At that point, USFWS turned their backs on us and refused to defend it. We believe that it was the right plan, that it does protect the viable wolf population. We’re not interested in changing it because our past experience is that when we make changes, they just come back for more.”

“We do not believe that El Paso is a friend of the (ranching) industry, despite what they said at the meeting.”

Magagna indicated that Wyoming is supporting efforts to have the wolf congressionally delisted. “Our message is that we will continue to fight for wolf delisting to include Wyoming, based on our current plan.”

PLC also voted on new and interim policy resolutions. In the wake of the emergence

of the BLM’s Treasured Landscapes document, which proposes approximately 13 million acres of public land be designated as new national monuments— if necessary by executive order through the Antiquities Act—PLC adopted policy to support congressional review and modification of the Antiquities Act, to include congressional approval of presidential designations, and to require that existing levels of grazing be maintained on approved national monuments. PLC also voted to support congressional action to exempt the western states from the Antiquities Act and to work toward the reversal or repeal of past unnecessary national monument designations.

Other policies adopted included endorsement of the “Restore Our Border” plan developed by the Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association to improve security along the U.S.-Mexican border; promotion of grazing as a mitigation tool for other public land uses such as energy development; and opposition to National Heritage Areas on the basis that they jeopardize acceptable federal, state, and local land planning.

Amid the gloom and doom of the Ruby Pipeline issue, Treasured Landscapes, and the wolf relisting, a few bright spots brought some much-needed relief. BLM Deputy Director for Policy and Programs Marcilynn Burke announced the winner of the agency’s Rangeland Stewardship Award.

Ray Hendrix, owner of the Smith Creek Ranch of Austin, NV, and manager Duane Coombs were recognized for implementing innovative livestock management practices that enhance sagebrush, aspen, and riparian habitat on their public grazing allotment. The Smith Creek Ranch was congratulated for being particularly effective in improving sage grouse habitat on public grazing lands. — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent