Substitutes in Senate Grazing Improvement Act raises concerns

Jan 27, 2014

In a move hailed by some ag organizations, the U.S. Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee passed a measure entitled the Grazing Improvement Act sponsored by Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) in late November, 2013. But some ranchers aren’t as convinced that the passage of the current language is in their best interest, and believe what was passed was “a substitute in the nature of substitute” that looked nothing like the original measure.

Not only does the bill not contain many improvements for federal lands ranch families, says Jose Varela Lopez, New Mexico Cattle Growers Association President of La Cieneguilla, NM, it does just the opposite.

“The measure was intended to provide stability for ranchers grazing on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) as part of the multiple use mandate for these lands,” Varela Lopez explained. “Instead, the amended bill reduces stability and provides a path for eliminating lands from multiple use.”

For example, he said, Senator Barrasso’s original bill would have provided term permits for grazing of 20 years rather than the current 10 on healthy allotments. The substitute will allow for up to 20-year permits, but it removes the stability of even a 10-year permit.

According to Denver, CO, based environment and land law attorney Connie Brooks, “The grazing permit renewal bill provides for 20-year renewal and categorical exclusion under NEPA if: monitoring of the allotment has indicated that the current grazing management has met, or has satisfactorily progressed towards meeting objectives contained in the land use and resource management plan of the allotment, as determined by the Secretary concerned.

In more recent land use plans, the Forest Service adopts management objectives that are based on the “natural range of variation.” The objectives are not tested by data and assume management to mimic pre-western civilization. It is possible if not probable that most grazing permits will not achieve such objectives.

“In North and South Dakota, the Forest Service had adopted objectives for the National Grasslands that required vegetation density measured by “visual obstruction rating” or “VOR.” Despite expert opinions that the prescribed ratings cannot be achieved on most North and South Dakota range sites due to soils, climate and lack of precipitation, the Forest Service insisted that the land was biologically capable of producing tall and dense vegetation.

Rigorous studies have proven that the western North Dakota range sites are not biologically capable of meeting the management objectives. To this day, the Forest Service proposes significant reductions in grazing for the very reason that they do not meet the LRMP management objectives.

“Similarly the same plans called for 20 percent of the land area to be native plant species, even though the Department of Agriculture conservation programs planted most of the land with nonnative crested wheatgrass that still dominates the areas. Crested wheatgrass is very difficult if not impossible to convert to native grasses. So once again, the grazing permit will not conform to management objectives.

The legislation should be revised to remove the section in its entirety, Brooks concludes.

It is the “categorical exclusion” language that is a poison pill for Karen Budd-Falen, Cheyenne, WY, federal lands attorney who was instrumental in drafting the original Grazing Improvement Act.

“The amended bill codifies National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis on federal grazing allotments,” she explained. “This bill would congressionally mandate actions that are currently discretionary.”

In an unprecedented move, the amended Grazing Improvement Act takes dead aim at ranchers in New Mexico and Oregon, Varela Lopez points out.

“The bill contains a provision for “voluntary relinquishment” of up to 25 allotments in New Mexico and Oregon,” he said. “Those allotments would be mandated to permanently exclude grazing.”

Not only does this undermine the small business of ranching in those states, but unmanaged allotments will certainly provide more fuel for the catastrophic wild fires the West has suffered in recent times, Varela Lopez noted. Further frustrating New Mexicans is the fact that no one was contacted regarding this substitute bill prior to its committee passage, he said.

The substitute bill offered as an amendment by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) is now ready for action on the U.S. Senate floor.

The U.S. House of Representatives has an un-amended version of the measure awaiting action, as well. Neither measure is scheduled for action in Congress at this time.

Thus far neither National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) nor Public Lands Council (PLC) have provided any information that might alleviate ranchers’ concerns or opposition to the senate bill, says Varela Lopez.

However, in November, following the Senate passage of the Act, the two organizations did provide a press release pointing out some of the flaws in the legislation, primarily relating to the substitutes in the amendment.

The release pointed out that the bill that passed was an amendment in the nature of a substitute which included troubling language, creating a pilot program which 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 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, anti-grazing 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.”

“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.”

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. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor