Grazing Improvement Act passes out of Senate committee

Nov 22, 2013

Producers dealing with the burdensome, political, regulatory process on their public lands leases were given a glimmer of hope last week, with the Senate committee passage of the Grazing Improvement Act.

With the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) backlogged books and a number of legal battles, ranchers with grazing permits continue to face the risk of losing leases.

“A series of unfortunate court decisions now require that analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) be done on grazing allotments every 10 years to renew permits. The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) have been unable to keep up with the workload. Meanwhile, environmental extremists file a constant stream of process-based lawsuits, partially funded by taxpayer dollars. They take advantage of already-strained resources to litigate missed deadlines and incomplete paperwork. By further tying up agency resources, they create a vicious cycle of litigation,” according to the Public Lands Council (PLC).

But last week, PLC and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) added a win to their books when the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources passed S. 258, the Grazing Improvement Act of 2013.

The legislation, sponsored by Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) comes as a means to codify existing appropriations language—adding stability and efficiency to the federal grazing permit renewal process. The bill passed by the committee will extend the term for grazing permits from a minimum of 10 up to 20 years, providing for added permit security.

This bill provides sole discretion to the Secretary of the Interior and Secretary of Agriculture to complete the environmental analysis under NEPA while allowing for an analysis to take place at the programmatic level.

“The act is vital for ensuring the fate of our producer’s permits—livelihoods are depending on the efficiency of the system—which undoubtedly needs restructuring,” said Scott George, NCBA President and Wyoming rancher. “Not only will the bill codify the language of the decades-old appropriations rider; it will also allow categorical exclusions from NEPA for permits, continuing current practices and for crossing and trailing of livestock. Additionally, it will allow for NEPA on a broad scale, reducing paper pushing within the federal agencies.”

The bill that passed was an amendment in the nature of a substitute which included troubling language, creating a pilot program that would allow for limited “voluntary” buyouts. These “voluntary” buyouts are not actually market-based, due to outside influence. Where voluntary relinquishment of a rancher’s grazing permit occurs, grazing would be permanently ended. New Mexico and Oregon would be impacted—allowing for up to 25 permits in each state, per year to be “voluntarily” relinquished.

“PLC strongly opposes buyouts—voluntary or otherwise,” said Brice Lee, PLC President and a Colorado rancher. “Ultimately, buyouts create an issue for the industry due to the wealthy special interest groups who work to remove livestock from public lands. The language in the amendment addresses ‘voluntary’ buyouts; however, radical, antigrazing agendas are likely at play. Litigation and persistent harassment serve as a way to eliminate grazing on public lands—and could force many ranchers into these ‘voluntary’ relinquishments, unwillingly. There can be no ‘market-based solution’ in which any given special interest group is able to ratchet up ranchers’ cost of operation, and artificially create a ‘voluntary’ sale or relinquishment.”

Nevertheless, both Lee and George agree the bill is a strong indication that senators from both parties recognize the current system is broken and must be fixed to provide stability for grazing permit renewals, despite the buyout language.

“Passage out of committee is a feat in itself—we applaud the efforts of Senator Barrasso and we are hopeful the bill will continue to improve as it advances in the Senate,” George said.

The original bill was introduced Feb. 7 of this year, and has been heavily opposed by environmentalists.

“The [Act] is a nightmare for wild buffalo,” Wildlife News claims.

“The ranchers simply don’t want competition for the grass on our federal public lands. Wild buffalo have a natural right to migrate and graze, but the welfare ranchers stand in the way,” the group writes, referring to buffalo around the Yellowstone area. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor