Challenges and opportunities mark annual PLC convention

Sep 14, 2012

Plenty of people stop through Winnemucca, NV, to spend a few days and gamble in the casinos. But the delegation of ranchers that rumbled into town two weeks ago to hammer out solutions to public lands issues was playing for much higher stakes: Keeping public lands open to livestock grazing and keeping the ranchers who graze public lands in business. Coming from as far away as South Dakota, Arizona and Washington, producers from across the West made their way to this central Nevada cow town to tackle the big challenges facing their industry, and have a bit of Great Basin-style fun, besides.

That was the scene at the two-day Public Lands Council (PLC) annual convention, a bubbling stewpot of political issues, politically active ranchers, federal agency representatives, scientists, legislators and industry experts. Conference attendees rolled up their sleeves to discuss public land challenges and listen to speakers by day, but by night spilled out into Winnemucca’s historic Basque dining spots for a bit of socializing and fun.

Rep. Mark Amodei, R-NV, headlined the convention, welcoming the group to Nevada, a state that boasts the greatest amount (approximately 83 percent) of federal land within its borders, and over 50 percent of the nation’s wild horses, making it an eminently well-qualified venue for the gathering. A freshman in Washington, Amodei has caught the attention of the industry by being a stout supporter of industry issues in the House, sponsoring legislation to limit national monument designation and co-sponsoring the Grazing Improvement Act.

Hot topics at the two-day convention included the latest efforts to keep the sage grouse off the endangered species list, water rights, rangeland fire control, managing cheat grass, and getting local governments engaged in federal land management decisions.

Bob Budd, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, delivered a cautiously optimistic update on the ongoing efforts by western states to prevent an endangered listing of the greater sage grouse. Budd called the current endeavors by states to write sage grouse plans that beef up conservation efforts unprecedented, but warned that the states need to “keep their foot on the gas” if the effort is to succeed. As a cautionary note, Budd described the inevitable bureaucratic paper storm of permitting and permission seeking that would envelop federal lands ranchers in the event of a listing.

In other sage grouse news, the group was briefed by Don Henderson of Resource Concepts, Inc. on their progress to create a sage grouse database for PLC members.

When fully operational, the website–which has been commissioned by PLC–will contain an online library of scientific and legal documents about sage grouse and related issues like grazing, fire, and invasive species that help to illustrate compatibility between sage grouse conservation and proper grazing methods.

University of Nevada, Reno range scientists Bob Alverts and Dr. Barry Perryman, together with USDA Agricultural Research Service range scientist Dr. Charlie Clements, presented research demonstrating the utility of grazing as a tool to reduce cheat grass invasion. Cheat grass, a highly flammable and dominant annual, has been a major cause of sage grouse habitat loss, crowding out native species and the sagebrush essential to grouse nesting.

Throughout the two days of presentations and discussions, one theme that continually resurfaced was how to keep decisions on federal lands as decentralized and as close to the ground as possible, drawing on the experience of ranchers and specialists who are familiar with local range issues.

In a press release following the conference, PLC Executive Director Dustin Van Liew underlined the need to keep management local, and avoid “top down” decisions from Washington that may miss the nuances of local environmental particulars.

“The caretakers of this land, which are ranch families, must be included in the decision-making process to achieve the best results for the land, wildlife and the future of these family ranching operations,” stated Van Liew. “No one knows better than ranchers and local agency range staff about the rangeland needs. On the same token, no one knows better than local elected officials what their communities require.”

On the theme of local government involvement, the group heard a panel discussion (led by your author) on cooperating agency status and coordination, two tools that counties and other local governments can use to have an elevated role in federal land management decisions.

Other highlights of the meeting included updates from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service, a discussion about how ranchers can form rangeland fire protection districts, and Utah State Rep. Ken Ivory’s presentation on Utah’s effort to legislatively claim federal lands in Utah as belonging to the state.

In what has become an annual tradition at the convention, BLM honored a stand-out producer with its prestigious Rangeland Stewardship Award. This year, however, the award went not to a single ranch, but to all 16 partners in the Kirby Creek Coordinated Resource Management Group from Thermopolis, WY. The coalition of ranchers and agencies was presented with the award by Nevada BLM Director Amy Lueders on behalf of acting BLM Director Mike Pool, recognizing the group for outstanding restoration efforts in the Kirby Creek watershed.

Retiring PLC President John Falen’s service to the organization was celebrated with a banquet in his honor. Following two days of indoor meetings, conference goers were treated to a range tour at Falen’s Home Ranch near Orovada, NV.

Brice Lee Jr. of Hesperus, CO, succeeds Falen as PLC president, and Brenda Richards of Reynolds Creek, ID, now assumes the vice-presidency. Dave Eliason of Tremonton, UT, was nominated as the new secretary/treasurer.

Based in Washington, D.C., PLC is affiliated with National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and represents the interests of ranchers across the 13 western states with significant public lands grazing. — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent