PLC, Arizona Cattle Growers' Association defeat radical environmental group’s claim

Dec 21, 2012

The list of never ending political challenges continues to grow for producers in every state, but a recent court case win for public lands grazing is now on the books, adding a little optimism for some Arizona ranchers.

The Public Lands Council (PLC), Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association (ACGA) and several individual Arizona ranchers announced victory in a recent case where a radical anti-grazing environmental group challenged in court the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) decision to continue livestock grazing on eight Arizona grazing allotments. The challenge was originally filed with the Arizona U.S. District Court by Western Watersheds Project in August 2011. Represented by Mountain States Legal Foundation, PLC,  ACGA and two ranchers filed as intervenors in support of USFS and asked the court to grant summary judgment on the eight decisions, which allowed grazing to continue under the “categorical exclusion” parameters of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Last week, U.S. District Judge Neil V. Wake ruled in favor of USFS and the defendant intervenors, granting summary judgment on seven of the eight grazing allotments in question, including the Casner Park/Kelly Seep, Pine Creek, Seven C-Bar, Twin Tanks, Chino Valley, Cosnino and V-Bar allotments. On the eighth allotment, the Angell, he ruled that USFS’ documentation of the impacts of grazing was insufficient, and asked the parties to submit proposed forms of judgment by early January.

According to PLC Executive Director Dustin Van Liew, the judge’s ruling on the seven allotments is a major win for the livestock grazing industry, which depends on efficiencies granted under NEPA’s “categorical exclusion” provisions and subsequent appropriations language for timely reauthorization of grazing. In the absence of these provisions, excessive regulatory red tape and unnecessary analysis would increase the opportunity for litigation by predatory special interest groups, with no added benefit to range health, he said.

“Under ‘categorical exclusion’ provisions and the protections offered through appropriations language, land management agencies are able to reauthorize grazing that is simply continuing under existing conditions, and rightfully so,” said Van Liew. “Continuing grazing on western lands that, in many cases, have been grazed for more than a century does not constitute a ‘major federal action’ or fall under the agency’s ‘extraordinary-circumstances’ definition that would require full NEPA review.”

ACGA Executive Vice President Patrick Bray said the decision will benefit not just the ranchers in his state, but will potentially have positive west-wide implications.

“Federal land management agencies face a daunting backlog of regulatory paperwork under NEPA which, in the absence of the congressional language allowing for categorical exclusions, threatens ranchers’ grazing rights—which could ultimately kill their businesses,” Bray said. “With this and other similar challenges across the West, Western Watersheds Project makes a business out of adding burden to alreadystrained agency resources.

Their taxpayer-funded strategy is focused on wiping out livestock grazing along with the families and communities that depend on it,” said Bray.

Van Liew said the livestock industry is encouraged by the fact that Wake determined USFS’ use of categorical exclusions to be in keeping with Congress’ intent when it enacted NEPA and subsequent provisions in appropriations bills.

“The livestock industry is involved in similar challenges across the West and has seen several victories,” he said. “We’re encouraged by this ruling, as it reinforces the rights of ranching families in Arizona and the West.” — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor