Streamlining grazing permits a priority

May 3, 2013

Idaho First District Congressman Raúl Labrador recently reintroduced the Grazing Improvement Act, an important jobs and public lands bill from the previous 112th Congress.

Labrador’s bill would give the federal government flexibility to keep grazing in place during the lengthy environmental process or renewing permits.

“I am pleased to reintroduce important legislation which would help ranchers in Idaho and across America,” said Labrador. “This bill will add more stability and production security to ranchers in Idaho because it streamlines the permitting process to access public lands. Ranchers in my state of Idaho have said that if they were to lose their grazing permit, then they would have to subdivide their land. I cannot allow this to happen to Idaho family ranches. This is the kind of sensible, red tape cutting reform we need for our ranchers to stay in business and grow our economy more quickly.”

Owyhee County, ID, rancher Brenda Richards, Public Lands Council (PLC) vice president and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) member, commented on the bill: “Operations like ours are the backbone and the main economic drivers of many rural communities. The Grazing Improvement Act as introduced by Congressman Labrador would add certainty to the grazing permit system and decrease the risk of losing access to lands where our families have grazed livestock for generations, benefiting the environment and enhancing wildlife habitat. The Grazing Improvement Act will help to ensure the continued success of our families, the foundation of a healthy, working landscape in the West.”

The Grazing Improvement Act enjoys bipartisan support. It is co-sponsored by Mike Simpson, R-ID, Jim Costa, D-CA, Mark Amodei, R-NV, Paul Gosar, R-AZ, Tom McClintock, R-CA, Kristi Noem, R-SD, Glenn Thompson, R-PA, Scott Tipton, R-CO, and Greg Walden, R-OR. If enacted, it would provide several important tools for easing access to public lands for American ranchers. Specifically, the bill would:

• Extend Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service livestock grazing permits from 10 years to 20 years in order to give producers adequate longevity and production stability;

• Codify appropriation rider language to require expired grazing permits to be extended under existing terms and conditions until the renewal process is complete;

• Encourage the respective Secretaries to utilize categorical exclusions under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process to expedite permit processing; and

• Allow trailing permits to be categorically excluded from NEPA.

In April, Richards testified before Congress on behalf of PLC, NCBA and the Idaho Cattle Association in support of the Act. Richards, who runs a cattle ranch with her husband and three sons, told the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation that passage of H.R. 657 would have a positive impact on many ranching families such as hers.

Richards gave first-hand accounts of its important role in putting a stop to the never-ending environmental litigation facing ranchers and the federal land management agencies due to the unnecessary, duplicative environmental analysis currently burdening the industry and taxpayers.

“The Grazing Improvement Act would offer the flexibility the agencies need, while providing stability to the industry,” Richards said. “It would codify the language that we hold our collective breath for every year in the appropriations process, language which allows us to continue using our permits under current terms and conditions while the agencies work through the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) backlog. By extending the life of grazing permits and categorically exempting certain qualified permits, transfers, and livestock crossing and trailing from NEPA review, H.R. 657 will reduce the backlog that is the source of much consternation.”

According to Richards, the current federal lands grazing permit system is broken, and gives environmental extremist groups ample opportunity to litigate. Those lawsuits are often times partially funded with American tax dollars. Richards added that the litigation, combined with agencies’ reimbursing the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees, puts additional strain on agency resources and perpetuates the cycle.

During her testimony, Richards described how instability in permit renewals has impacted the ranching community in places like Owyhee County, where 78 percent of the land is federally owned.

“We cannot afford to lose access to (federal land) forage because of paperwork backlogs and litigation, but that’s exactly what’s happening,” she said. “I encourage you to support this bill as one that will stimulate rural economies and job growth, save taxpayer dollars and ensure that the natural resources of the West continue under the careful stewardship of generations of ranching families such as mine.”

The bill is similar to legislation introduced by Rep. Paul Gosar, R-AZ, that seeks to expedite the process to reduce hazardous fuel loads on federal lands at the most risk of wildfire through livestock grazing and timber harvesting.

During the 112th Congress in June 2012, this bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives on a bipartisan vote of 232-188. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor