Ranchers advocate for common sense in Washington

Apr 11, 2014

“Remember, when you walk into those offices tomorrow, you’re the expert in the room when it comes to ranching and what’s happening on the ground,” said Dustin Van Liew, looking out at a crowd of cowboy hats, boots and sport coats. The 40 some ranchers with public lands grazing rights were preparing to meet with their elected representatives at the nation’s capital. Van Liew, Executive Director of Public Lands Council (PLC), supplied the group with packets of talking points on issues ranging from public land grazing administration reform to legislative improvements to the Endangered Species Act (ESA). That day, Tuesday, April 8, ranchers hashed over the issues, airing their questions and concerns with each other, PLC staff, and federal agency officials. The annual PLC legislative conference was underway.

The meeting participants, while hailing from nine western states and ranging in age from 20 on up, had plenty in common when it came to threats to their ranching businesses. A common theme voiced by ranchers from every state was the federal land management agencies’ trend toward putting higher priority on wildlife management than on other uses, such as grazing. By law, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) are required to manage the bulk of the land under their jurisdiction in a manner that promotes “multiple use.” This means allowing timber, grazing, wildlife, recreation and other uses to carry on side-by-side in a way that, as the statute reads, “will best meet the needs of the American people.”

Yet meeting-goers made it clear in their discussions that BLM and USFS have been wandering far off their chartered course with a panoply of regulations or proposed regulations designed to “protect” wildlife. Some of the land management agencies’ actions are taken due to species’ listings by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) under the ESA. Other times, BLM and USFS seem to be placing their priorities on wildlife of their own accord—to the detriment of other multiple uses.

Meanwhile, according to the personal experience of one attendee at PLC’s conference, the agencies’ wildlife “protections” are actually leading to the demise of wildlife. Kendra Brennan, who came to the meeting on a PLC collegiate scholarship, said that her family’s grazing allotment was one of several to be hit by the infamous Rim Fire last year. She said decreased forest management, such as grazing and timber harvesting, helped lead to the third largest fire in California’s history, spanning almost 260,000 acres on the Stanislaus National Forest.

“It burned so hot in some areas, it just sterilized the ground. Nothing’s going to grow back,” Brennan said. “Part of our allotment didn’t actually burn that hot, and we’ll be able to turn back out there. But in areas where there was no management, the ground was basically sterilized.”

Brennan, who is currently a senior at California State University, Fresno, said she and her brother plan to run the family ranch one day. The “Bar OB” brand is already transferred to their name, she said, and the two of them are building their own herd. She said her passion for ranching and keeping federal land grazing alive was the reason she came to D.C. for the meeting.

But Brennan worries about the situation now on the Stanislaus.

“The salvage logging that needs to get done is being delayed because of the Forest Service’s endless analysis. They have the blackbacked woodpecker, which they’re calling an ‘indicator species,’ holding everything up. But if we don’t get these burned areas cleaned up, there’s going to be more really hot burns.”

When asked about whether she thinks the agency has viewed grazing as at odds with wildlife, she agreed— while pointing out that, in her experience, the opposite is true.

“If you look at the meadows that are grazed, then compare them to one that’s fenced for ‘potential habitat’—there is no wildlife on the fenced areas. They’re all on the grazed meadow,” said Brennan. “My brother and I always laugh because we maintain all these fences to keep the cows off certain areas, and we never see the wildlife in the area we’re supposed to be ‘protecting,’” Brennan said. She went on to talk about how grazing promotes healthy plant growth and habitat. USFS decisions to cut back on grazing in the name of habitat preservation, she said, have been counter-productive.

“(USFS) Chief (Tom) Tidwell said some really nice things at our meeting yesterday about the importance of ranching,” Brennan said Wednesday. “But when their actions are completely different from what they’re saying…it’s hard to believe what you’re hearing.”

The Brennan family’s experience with USFS’ wildlife regulations is not likely to improve. The Stanislaus forest plan is in the process of being updated under the new west-wide forest planning rule, which places even more emphasis on wildlife “protection” over grazing and other uses. At the PLC meeting in D.C., Van Liew gave an update on PLC’s litigation of that rule. Despite industry’s ongoing legal challenge, USFS has continued implementing the new rule on some forests.

But Van Liew said that USFS is not the only agency to confuse grazing removal with wildlife protection. BLM and USFS both are currently considering draft regulations that would place harsh new restrictions on grazing in the name of greater sage grouse “protection.”

These regulations could serve to put ranchers across the West out of business— thereby increasing threats such as wildfire and landscape fragmentation, Van Liew said. He said that if FWS lists the bird in 2015, these threats will increase exponentially.

“That’s why those of you with representatives on the Appropriations Committee should be asking them to tell FWS to delay the listing decision,” Van Liew told meeting attendees.

At the PLC meeting, BLM Director Neil Kornze called it “awkward” that his agency had to promulgate these regulations when another agency, FWS, was driving the process. Kornze told PLC. “Fish and Wildlife Service has said that without ‘major action,’ they are going to list the bird.”

Like Chief Tidwell, Director Kornze had positive things to say about ranching. “It’s one of our most incredible American traditions,” he said. He described grazing as “part of our ecosystems,” and ranchers as the “eyes and ears on the ground.”

But a Wyoming sheep rancher at the meeting noted that, despite these accolades, many of BLM’s proposed regulations are going above and beyond FWS’ demands for grazing restrictions. Jim Magagna, who is also the Executive Vice President of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said that with regard to sage grouse and a host of other species, the federal land management agencies have “gone far beyond habitat management.”

Also on the docket for discussion were regulations surrounding bighorn sheep, frogs, toads, jaguars, tortoises, wolves, bison, grizzlies and horses, to name a few. Some of these are federally listed as endangered under the ESA, and some are not. Some aren’t even native: “wild” horses are, in fact, feral. A group of Utah ranchers is pulling together to litigate BLM for the damage their horse mismanagement is doing to the ranchers’ operations. While in D.C., the PLC board voted to engage in the Utah ranchers’ lawsuit.

Van Liew said that lawsuits against the administration are expensive, and are always PLC’s last resort. Far preferable, he said, is action by Congress to slow down the agencies’ regulatory onslaught. He cited a number of bills, especially in the House, that would help roll back the host of ill-conceived regulations hurting industry.

“There’s a hearing today on four ESA improvement bills we support, where our friends Karen Budd-Falen and Kent Holsinger are testifying. Then there’s the Catastrophic Wildfire Prevention Act, which passed the House and would keep the ESA and other environmental laws from stymieing sound forest management. There is reform legislation to slow down taxpayer-funded litigation by radical groups. There’s a lot of great legislation out there.”

Van Liew admitted that, given the current makeup in Washington, the outlook for enactment of most of these bills is dim this congressional session. But the tone at the PLC meeting was upbeat, with a Republican takeover of the senate looking highly possible this November.

“A flip in the senate would go a long way in helping industry minimize the damage being done by this administration,” said Van Liew. “And then 2016 will finally get here, and if all goes well and we get a more favorable administration, we’ll be ready with a number of great improvements to ESA and other laws and regulations that are hurting our industry. For now, we’re doing our best to fend them off. Ranchers’ participation here in Washington is a huge part of that.” — Theodora Dowling, WLJ Correspondent