Public lands ranchers face siege of regulations

Mar 16, 2012

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) is defending the agency’s decision to close some roads in national forests, despite the growing conflicts and concerns. Intermountain Regional Forester Harv Forsgren told guests at a congressional hearing in Elko, NV, last week that the travel management plans are part of an on-going process across the West.

Forsgren says the designations are necessary to protect natural and cultural resources from an explosion in the use of off-highway vehicles (OHVs) the past 15 years. According to reports, the number of OHVs registered in Utah alone more than tripled from 52,000 in 1998 to 172,000 in 2006. But the heart of the debate was not the OHVs, but instead the continued onslaught of regulations.

Last week’s oversight meeting with the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands in Elko was entitled, “Explosion of Federal Regulations Threatening Jobs and Economic Survival in the West.” At the hearing, Subcommittee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-UT, and Rep. Mark Amodei, R-NV, heard testimony from USFS, ranchers, local officials and impacted citizens about county interaction with federal land management agencies over land-use regulations and state water rights.

Amodei requested the hearing based on criticism of USFS’s travel management plans. Critics say the agency wants to make criminals out of anyone who travels on closed roads on national forests. In addition, the regulations challenge basic water rights.

Fourth-generation Nevada rancher J.J. Goicoechea told members of the committee that recent actions by federal land management agencies are diminishing water rights and restricting access to forage on federal lands. Goicoechea, who is a practicing veterinarian and current president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association (NCA), testified on behalf of NCA, the Public Lands Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

Goicoechea said a major challenge for ranchers across the West is dealing with USFS on the issue of privately held water rights. The crux of the problem, he said, is that the agency is in many areas implementing a new policy of denying permits for privately owned water improvement development and maintenance unless the agency is granted partial ownership of the water right. He said the agency’s continued unwillingness to allow water improvements places the health of the range at risk, threatens ranchers’ ability to retain the water rights, and ultimately results in the federal government taking private property.

“The agency’s continued action presents a major threat not just to the resource, but to ranchers.

These actions create the prospect of losing our water rights. Nevada water law states that the water must be put to ‘beneficial use.’ In the case of stock water, that use is for watering livestock. If the water cannot be used to water livestock, it will no longer be a valid right,” Goicoechea said. “The fact that the Forest Service would facilitate the loss of personal property rights in this manner flies in the face of the principles upon which our nation was founded; in my view constituting a federal regulatory taking of private property.”

Goicoechea also urged the lawmakers to work with ranchers and the federal land management agencies to enact meaningful reforms to the Endangered Species Act, an act he said has resulted in a less than 2 percent species recovery rate over the past 40 years. He said ranching should be considered part of the solution to prevent the listing of the greater sage grouse on the endangered species list.

“Listing the sage grouse as endangered would have such far-reaching and potentially devastating impacts across the West that the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service have embarked on a sage grouse conservation initiative, unprecedented in its size and scope, in an attempt to preempt the bird’s listing,” he said. “But will the cure be worse than the illness? Unfortunately, the agencies’ plans fail to recognize that grazing is responsible for retaining expansive tracts of sagebrush-dominated rangeland, stimulating growth of grasses, controlling the spread of noxious and invasive weeds, and reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire. These services can only be provided by ranches that are stable and viable. The best strategies for agencies to employ are those that work for ranchers and sage grouse alike.”

Working together to come up with a solution that didn’t leave out key stakeholders was at the heart of the discussion.

“Whether it is various insect and disease infestations, unnaturally-overgrown forest stands, catastrophic wildfire, or any combination of such, no one can deny that our national forests are in dire straits. National forests are an important and necessary source of economic activity and recreation for local communities and the public. This vital resource needs to be managed for the benefit of all users and I strongly believe that there is plenty of it to go around,” said Bishop. “We heard from witnesses who described a variety of situations in which their popular and longstanding use of public land and water has been impacted by not only increasing regulations and policy, but also the Forest Service’s implementation of such. Water rights are a sacred issue in the West and any attempt to upset the balance of state water law and primacy is something to be taken very seriously.”

“Over the last few decades, we have experienced a fundamental shift in resource development and forest management that has resulted in decreased access to our public lands and threats to our water rights. The federal government’s cooperation with local, state and tribal governments concerning these important issues has quickly deteriorated. In the West, as exemplified in my home state of Nevada, access to our public lands is critical to job creation and our economic viability. I hope our concerns regarding Nevada water law and federal collaboration in travel management don’t fall on deaf ears so that we can once again manage the lands for the benefit of all,” said Amodei.

Under the 2005 Travel Management Rule, USFS is required to develop travel management plans for designating a system of roads, trails and areas for motor vehicle use within our national forests and grasslands. In implementing the rule, USFS is required to collaborate with federal, state, county and other local government entities as well as tribal governments in the route and area designation process. However, according to Howard Hutchinson, executive director of the Coalition of Arizona/New Mexico Counties, “repeated attempts to secure local government participation and meaningful input into the NFMA, NEPA, ESA and other planning processes have been met with extreme resistance by federal agencies.” Hutchinson cited several examples where the federal government ignored local opinion in favor of restricting access on public lands.

Implementation of the proposed travel management plans will severely hurt economies throughout the West. According to Elko County Commissioner Charlie Myers’ testimony, “Seventy-five percent of the lands used for outdoor recreation in Elko County are managed by the Federal Government (7.5 million ac.). The total economic impact of outdoor recreation to Elko County is almost $165 million.” Myers discussed the lack of scientific evidence supporting the need for limiting access to Forest Service lands. “NE- PA requires that an action such as prohibition of motorized vehicle use must be based on the best available commercial scientific data. Elko County has asked the Forest Service on four different occasions for the scientific data used for the ROD determination and the last request for this data was through the Freedom of Information Act. We have yet to receive any data.”

Gerald Temoke, chairman of the Elko Band Council for the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone, spoke of the importance of public lands access to the tribes of Nevada. “We have been walking, then riding and now driving around these mountains for hundreds, more likely thousands of years. Many county residents have been here for generations. Most of us spend our lifetimes here. This is our home.” Temoke expressed deep concern and disappointment over the lack of consultation by USFS on the proposed travel management plans that would strip tribes of access to roads they regularly use for game retrieval, wood cutting, gathering of food, getting close to certain medicinal plants and roots.

“Existing roads that are not on the Forest Service map are considered not to exist. If these roads are not allowed to be used, after a short period of time, they will for all intents and purposes disappear. ... The Forest Service never consulted or attempted to consult with us until after it was announced that there would be a congressional hearing.” — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor