PLC creates historic trust

Sep 16, 2011

The cool green mountains of Utah’s Park City ski resort may be a vacationer’s paradise, but it was all work and very little play for Public Lands Council (PLC) members who flocked to the Wasatch Mountains from across the west to hammer out solutions to the myriad of issues currently threatening public lands grazing.

The milestone event of the conference was PLC’s unanimous vote to approve the creation of the Public Lands Endowed Trust, a $15 million endowment to be funded by Ruby Pipeline, an energy infrastructure company.

Dustin Van Liew, PLC executive director and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association director of federal lands said the Trust will help to ensure the future of fed eral lands grazing. The result of more than a year of negotiations between PLC and Ruby Pipeline, the Trust’s mission will be to “protect, enhance and preserve multiple use of public lands, including the livestock grazing industry’s use of those lands.”

The expectation is that the endowment will provide PLC with a powerful war chest for non-litigation initiatives such as research, education, range monitoring, fire restoration, and media and community outreach for the benefit of the public lands grazing industry.

PLC entered into negotiations with Ruby Pipeline last year after it was revealed that Ruby, a subsidiary of Texas energy giant El Paso Corporation, had gifted Western Watersheds Project and the Oregon Natural Desert Association a sum of $22 million in exchange for dropping a litigation action against the Ruby Pipeline project, a recently completed 680 mile natural gas pipeline stretching from western Wyoming to southern Oregon.

PLC members were treated the first night to a lamb and steak barbecue courtesy of the Utah Wool Growers Association and the Utah Cattlemen’s, with special guests Utah Governor Gary Herbert and Utah Representative Rob Bishop on hand to welcome the group. In his speech, Governor Herbert emphasized the importance of “good faith efforts” on the part of the federal government to bring together diverse public lands interests, a quality he found pointedly lacking in the Department of Interior’s recently defunded Wild Lands scheme. Representative Bishop also lent his strong support to the cause of public lands grazing, citing it as a vital source of jobs and rural economic stability.

This view of ranching’s economic importance, PLC members later learned, is not shared by all. The second day of the conference, attendees were briefed on a recently released economic report issued by the Department of Interior titled “The Department of Interior’s Economic Contributions.” Already notorious for its inexplicable economic claims, the report indicates that public lands grazing is largely economically irrelevant, while recreation is a key emerging economic driver for many rural communities. Disturbingly for many public lands grazers, the report further instructs that future policy decisions should reflect the alleged disparity.

In response to Interior’s claims, PLC has commissioned Resource Concepts, Inc., (RCI) a natural resources consulting firm, to research and write an analysis of the report demonstrating the inaccuracy of the report’s numbers. RCI has hired three economists to their team for this effort, which will be peer reviewed by a panel of independent experts before being distributed to Congress. RCI’s report will be released at the end of October.
There was also much discussion of Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar’s instruction to the BLM that it query local governments for recommendations of public lands “crown jewels” for wilderness recommendations to Congress. This effort, the so-called “Bipartisan Wilderness Agenda,” seeks to advance the expansion of wilderness through conventional channels, namely, congressional designation.

Although there is broad recognition that this approach to wilderness designations represents an improvement over the Wild Lands initiative, which was widely believed to be an illegal attempt to administratively create de facto wilderness without the consent of Congress, many county governments have turned a cold shoulder on Salazar’s new request, saying either that they have no new wilderness proposals to recommend, or that they will independently pursue wilderness recommendations through their own processes. In a letter to Secretary Salazar from the Utah Congressional delegation, Senators Hatch and Lee and Representatives Bishop, Chaffetz, and Matheson stated that “[l]ocal leaders in Utah have overwhelmingly rejected the Department’s wilderness approach. …Utahns support [a] county-by-county process and reject the Department’s DC-centric, one-size-fits-all approach to wilderness designations.”

Intermountain Regional Forester and US Forest Service representative Harv Forsgren raised hackles among PLC members with his recommendation that Forest Service permittees should cede a portion of their water rights to the Service, forming a partnership for water management. Forsgren acknowledged that the Forest Service has been withholding permit approvals on improvement projects as a means of persuading permittees to give the government a share in their water rights.

“They really truly believe that because they are managing that resource that they deserve water rights as one of their tools,” explained Joe Guild, NCBA Federal Lands Committee Chair and water law attorney.
According to Guild, the Service is “holding approval of improving these water rights hostage at the expense of the resource.”

Although some states, such as Wyoming, do have water rights that are shared by private and public interests, Guild indicated that the strategy of making improvements to water developments, which can benefit wildlife and help promote more sustainable grazing practices, contingent upon relinquishing a share in private water rights, some of which have been held for well over a hundred years, puts permittees in an untenable position of having to choose between better management or hanging on to private property rights.

“It is totally unacceptable,” Guild said. “The resource is the loser in this as much as permittees on anybody else.

BLM Assistant Director of Renewable Resources and Planning Ed Roberson fielded questions from PLC members about the management of wild horses. PLC members criticized the BLM for adopting a policy of letting itself be bullied by radicalized horse activists, as opposed to sticking to its guns and insisting on managing at appropriate management level (AML). With euthanasia and sale without limitation “off the table,” in the words of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Interior has also nixed their previous plan for creating horse sanctuaries in eastern and southern states, and has backed down on population control measures such as gelding stallions. Currently, it appears that the only tool the BLM is actively pursuing for controlling horse numbers on range is the use of immuno-contraceptive drugs on mares. These drugs make mares infertile for one to two years, after which time they need to be re-gathered and re-treated, a potentially expensive proposition.

PLC members emphasized to Roberson that the BLM’s foremost obligation is to manage at AML in accord with the law, and not to please its most outspoken critics. And now that next year’s wild horse and burro budget has been cut back even further by Congress, members emphasized that more tools, rather a less, will keep the program in the black.

Capping off the conference, attendees were treated to an eye-opening range tour of Deseret Ranch in Rich County, Utah, guided by Utah Grazing Improvement Program (UGIP) director Bill Hopkin. The Deseret is a veritable showcase of lush riparian areas, tall grass, and an enviable sage grouse population, all benefited by Hopkin’s innovative intensive grazing and rotational management plan. Seeing the benefits of good grazing on the ground was as good an antidote to two days of struggling with tough issues as anyone could have asked for. — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent