U.S. forest policies threaten livestock grazing

Nov 18, 2011

On behalf of the Public Lands Council (PLC) and the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI), Margaret Soulen Hinson told lawmakers during a hearing of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands if USDA’s Forest Service’s proposed forest planning rule goes into effect, thousands of ranching families could be forced off the land.

USDA’s proposed rule received nearly 300,000 responses during its 90-day comment period which closed May 16, 2011. Publication of the final rule could come this winter.

The Forest Service plans to form a committee that will guide implementation of the new planning rule. The new rule would guide how management plans are developed for the 155 national forests and 20 grasslands in the U.S.

The current rule was developed in 1982, and agency officials say it is outdated. The new one would focus on adaptive management to allow more frequent updates in the future. This is the fourth attempt to implement a new planning rule since 2000 and the proposed rule, as written, could be devastating to the multiple uses currently on Forest Service lands, according to producers.

While Soulen Hinson, an Idaho cattle and sheep producer and president of ASI, discussed multiple concerns PLC and ASI have with the proposed planning rule, she spent the bulk of her testimony detailing the negative effect a provision calling for management for “species viability” would have on federal lands ranching.

“By 2013, my family and I will be forced to remove 60 percent of our sheep from our allotments on the Payette National Forest, which may well mark the end of our family’s 80-year-old sheep operation altogether,” Soulen Hinson said. “This has come to pass because of a very specific wildlife provision of the current planning rule, which calls for management for ‘species viability.’ The term ‘viability’ is a vague, ill-defined term which appears nowhere in statute and has been the source of endless litigation and economic destruction over the years. We recommend the Forest Service remove entirely the term ‘viability’ and leave wildlife management to the states, as required by statute.”

According to Soulen Hinson, while the Forest Service claims the viability provision in the proposed rule is an improvement because it only applies to populations of “species of conservation concern,” there is no sciencebased definition for “species of conservation concern,” which could result in a limitless list of species to manage. Notably, she said the viability provision goes beyond the current vertebrate standard and applies to all types of species, even moss and fungus. She said the most important fact for lawmakers to realize is that under the National Forest Management Act and the Multiple-Use Sustained Yield Act, the Forest Service does not have statutory authority to manage for species viability.

Subcommittee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-UT, agrees that the proposed planning rule could have devastating impacts on the federal lands grazing industry.

“I remain concerned that the U.S. Forest Service’s proposed planning rule will have a devastating impact on access within our nation’s 155 national forests and 20 grasslands, especially for ranchers who utilize these areas for grazing. Secondly, I am very interested in addressing rising concerns that the Forest Service is attempting to leverage access to public lands in exchange for privately held water rights,” Bishop added, addressing another topic raised in the hearing regarding the Forest Service’s policy on water rights and permitted activities. “It is my hope that these concerns can be brought to light and put to rest with final resolution. Privately-held water rights should not be a factor associated with the permitting process.”

In a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, Reps.

Greg Walden, R-OR, and Mike Ross, D-AR, along with over 30 cosigners, expressed their concerns over the proposed rule.

“In this era of shrinking agency budgets, we are very concerned that the proposed rule saddles the agency with a number of expensive processes and procedures, such as the assessments (Sec. 219.6), requirements to extensively document its conclusions regarding what is ‘best available scientific information’ (Sec. 219.3), expansion of monitoring activities (Sec. 219.12), and the continued reliance on and further expansion of the ‘species viability’ requirement beyond vertebrate animals to include all species, counting fungi, slugs and mosses (Sec. 219.9),” Walden and Ross wrote.

Walden and Ross believe the new rules, if implemented, will end up spending several years in legal battles, at a high cost to tax payers. “We also caution that there is much in the proposed rule that invites litigation by those who oppose a balanced multiple use management approach on our forests,” they said.

“These controversial proposed changes not only will add to the gridlock currently faced by the agency, but also will force significant costs onto already burdened taxpayers as the federal government is required to pay for agencies’ legal fees and, either as part of a settlement or because it does not prevail in litigation, other parties’ attorneys’ fees out of Judgment Act and Equal Access to Justice Act funds. In the latter case, the payments come directly out of the agency’s budget, further hampering its ability to manage our nation’s forests,” the letter stated.

Citing growing demands by the Forest Service to amass water rights in the West in return for permitted activities such as range improvement maintenance, Demar Dahl, a Nevada cattle rancher and member of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and PLC, testified on the policy’s potential impact on the ranching industry. He said the policy threatens the continuation of activities such as grazing that have existed on national forests for over a century—predating the agency’s existence.

“The Forest Service’s de mand flies in the face of federalism and the prior appropriation doctrine for water rights which exists in much of the West,” Dahl said. “For the benefit of the resource, which ranchers are striving every day to improve, and which the Forest Service is mandated to care for, the current Forest Service policy of delaying maintenance and establishment of stockwater resources [in return for water rights] needs to be reevaluated and discarded.”

Another concern on the rules, relating to President Obama’s Jan. 18, 2011, executive order, surfaced early on in the debates. The executive rule requires agencies to assure that the costs of a rule are justified by the benefits. “We do not believe that the proposed rule complies with the President’s executive order,” Walden and Ross wrote in their letter. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor