Senate hears grazing improvement bill testimony

Mar 30, 2012

On March 22, the Senate subcommittee on public lands and forests was treated to a showdown of dueling viewpoints over public lands grazing during a hearing at which Sen. Barrasso’s, R-WY, Grazing Improvement Act of 2011 (S. 1129) was debated. Testifying at the hearing were Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, and Andy Kerr, a long-time anti-grazing activist and, currently, advisor to activist group WildEarth Guardians. Representatives from federal lands agencies also delivered testimony before the subcommittee.

A companion bill (H.R. 4234) introduced by Rep. Raul Labrador, R-ID, is enjoying the bi-partisan support in the House as well as endorsement by the Public Lands Council, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and the Idaho Cattle Association.

In his remarks at the hearing, Barrasso asserted that his bill will bring necessary stability and assurances to ranchers who often face having their grazing interrupted or even permanently enjoined when activists file suit against federal agencies’ decision to renew grazing permits for a subsequent term, resulting in economically untenable conditions.

“Ranchers are proud and responsible environmental stewards of the land,” Barrasso told the subcommittee. “Yet ranchers face too much uncertainty surrounding their grazing permits. …Hard working ranching families are routinely attacked by extreme anti-grazing, pro-litigation groups. Uncertainty and litigation undermine all businesses, and it is especially true for rural ranching families… That is why I introduced the Grazing Improvement Act of 2011.”

Introduced last May, the proposed bill would amend the Federal Land Policy Management Act (FLPMA) by extending the standard term of a grazing permit on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service lands from 10 years to 20. It would also codify and extend language that has been inserted for the past 10 years in the annual congressional appropriations bill, allowing permit renewals to be reissued even if the necessary environmental assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) has not yet been completed. Inability to complete NEPA analysis on time has been a constant challenge for agencies, frequently due to environmental lawsuits stalling the process.

“As a result, the public land rancher has for the past 10 years been at the mercy of the annual congressional appropriations rider to allow permits to be renewed in a timely manner,” Magagna argued. “It just makes sense to codify language that has been approved annually by Congress for over a decade.”

The bill would further extend this provision by allowing for a “categorical exclusion” of permit renewals and transfers from environmental assessment all together, if the terms of the permits remain unchanged.

Supporters of the bill claim the exemption is essential to ease the substantial backlog of unprocessed renewals, which currently numbers some 4,200 permits.

Magagna emphasized that the measures will refocus NEPA back onto longrange outcomes and environmentally impactful actions, and create a climate in which meaningful analysis can be done in a thorough and timely manner.

Magagna added that the bill “represents a major step toward returning the focus of public land grazing to on-the-ground activities including management plans and range improvements.”

Kerr, however, strongly disagreed, arguing that grazing is not eligible for a categorical exclusion.

“If a federal action has no environmental impact, a categorical exclusion is appropriate,” Kerr stated.

“However, the grazing of livestock on public lands has environmental impact.

“What often gets lost in the debate over the renewal of public lands grazing permits are the consequences of livestock grazing on native species, ecosystems and watersheds,” Kerr continued. “Most grazing allotments in the West do not meet the federal standards for rangeland health. … Streams are polluted and species are imperiled because of livestock grazing on public lands. And the federal taxpayers are paying for it.”

A third provision of the bill would require that all appeals of federal land agency decisions by permittees occur “on the record” in accordance with the Administrative Procedures Act, placing the burden of proof on the agency to justify its land management decisions. Permittees would also be allowed to continue grazing during the administrative appeal process, provided that grazing posed no serious threat to the resource.

Although both BLM and Forest Service agreed with certain points in the bill, such as providing agency with increased flexibility to issue permits with longer terms, neither agency endorsed the legislation.

Mike Pool, deputy director of BLM, emphasized that although “the department shares the committee’s interest in identifying opportunities for increasing efficiencies in public land grazing administration, as well as finding ways to make permit renewal less complex, costly, and timeconsuming,” he felt the bill fell short of allowing for sufficient environmental and public review guaranteed by FLPMA.

“[T]he Department cannot support S. 1129 as it limits the BLM’s ability to provide for appropriate environmental review and public involvement—critical components of the BLM’s multiple-use management of the public lands...,” Pool explained.

Forest Service Deputy Chief Leslie Weldon also testified that the Forest Service “cannot support S. 1129 as written,” explicitly calling out mandatory categorical exclusions and continued grazing during the appeals process as deal breakers. However, she specified that the department “supports the intent of the bill” to increase efficiencies in the permitting process, and extended an olive branch by suggesting that the Forest Service would be willing to work with the subcommittee to “see if these differences can be resolved.”

It is not yet clear whether any retooling of the bill while it is in committee will be sufficient to quiet the concerns of the BLM and Forest Service. Yet, even if the bill were to give up some of its stronger provisions, such as categorical exclusion for renewed permits, it still has the potential to significantly improve the stakes for public lands grazers, who have long complained of having to operate in an unstable business climate.

It is unlikely that a compromise over the bill’s language would satisfy Kerr, however, who made it plain at the hearing that his vision for economic stability for ranchers involves discontinuing the enterprise of public lands grazing altogether through what he called “voluntary federal grazing permit retirement.”

“Ranchers across the West are interested in voluntary grazing permit retirement,” Kerr claimed.

“The conservation community would rather be buying out grazing permits from willing sellers than constantly having to sue the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management for flawed decision making.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent