Grazing reforms introduced
Senator John Barrasso introduced the Grazing Improvement Act of 2011 to Congress on May 26 in an effort to give producers grazing on public lands more stability.
“Livestock grazing on public lands has a strong tradition in Wyoming and in the West,” said Barrasso in a recent press release. “Ranchers are proud stewards of the land, yet extreme environmentalists have hijacked the permitting process with endless lawsuits aimed at eliminating livestock from public lands. These irresponsible tactics overwhelm permitting agencies and leaves ranchers at risk of losing their grazing permits. My bill gives ranching communities the certainty and stability they desperately need.”
Since 1995, when Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt passed rangeland reform regulations, a number of problems with the grazing permit structure have existed, such as additional burdens on Congress and inconsistent appeals processes.
“Right now, each major section of this bill deals with a major issue in the livestock grazing industry. Sometimes there is a lot of fluff in bills, but every section of this bill is critical for a different reason,” says Wyoming State Grazing Board Rangeland Consultant Dick Loper.
“Senator Barrasso really has a knack for understanding an issue and knowing what is important in an issue,” continues Loper.
The primary problems identified in the bill include length of permits, delayed renewal of permits and an appeals process that is inconsistent between the BLM and Forest Service.
To address those concerns, Wyoming Stock Growers Association Executive Vice President Jim Magagna says, “We have looked for opportunities to address some of these issues, and Senator Barrasso expressed a willingness to address the issues in a targeted bill that isn’t too drastic.”
The Grazing Improvement Act of 2011, or Senate Bill 1129, is co-sponsored by six Republican members of Congress, including Senators Mike Enzi, Mike Crapo (ID), Orrin Hatch (UT), Dean Heller (NV), James Risch (ID) and John Thune (SD).
After being read twice, the bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, chaired by Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), and is waiting its chance at a hearing.
“So far it doesn’t have any Democratic co-sponsors, so whether the committee will be willing to hear it is the first thing. It will be up to the committee chairman,” says Magagna.
Current regulations allow grazing permits for 10 years on BLM and Forest Service lands. Upon renewal of the permit, an environmental analysis of grazing lands under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is required.
The bill would accomplish four main goals addressing the problems created by Secretary Babbitt’s 1995 regulations.
First, the Grazing Improvement Act of 2011 extends the length of BLM grazing permits from 10 years to 20 years. In extending the length of BLM permits, more stability is provided for grazing permittees, according to Magagna.
Another problem exists in the ever-growing list of lawsuits filed by environmental groups. As a result, agencies are not able to complete necessary environmental analysis required by NEPA, delaying the process for renewing permits. While waiting for NEPA analysis, Congress is relied on to temporarily grant continued grazing permissions.
Magagna notes that currently there are over 900 permits in Wyoming that have been renewed based on the appropriations right through Congress, without completing the analysis and monitoring process because of a delay resulting from lawsuits.
“One of the main things, in our opinion, is that it codifies the appropriation writer language on the renewal issue,” says Loper. “Since 1999 we’ve had to go to Congress each year to renew permits.”
The bill alleviates the strain on Congress by taking out language necessitating that grazing permits be temporarily renewed through the appropriations bill each year. That language will be permanent, as long as grazing plans remain the same.
Additionally, the bill allows permits to be transferred without waiting for a NEPA analysis, as long as there are no changes of major significance in the grazing plan.
“The bill allows more stability for producers and more time for agencies to do their NEPA analysis and monitoring before renewing a permit,” says Magagna.
When permits are challenged, the Grazing Improvement Act could also allow continued grazing while an appeal is made.
“This provision very importantly says that the effective decision of the BLM would not take place until you have your day in court,” says Loper.
Appealing challenged permits or other decisions made by governing bodies, particularly the Forest Service, is also a long-standing concern of grazing permittees that is addressed in the bill.
“Something that has bothered us for years is that, if you appeal in the BLM, it goes to an outside agency. However, in the Forest Service, if you appeal a decision, the appeal goes to the next line officer up,” says Magagna.
For example, Magagna says, “A regional forester rules on a appeal from a forest supervisor, so the boss reviews the person who made the decision.”
He says this structure makes it very difficult to overturn any decision.
The new structure in the bill would allow the Forest Service to go through the Department of Interior Board of Land Appeals, similar to BLM appeals.
“This bill would try to make the appeals process more consistent between the two agencies,” says Loper.
“The bill also says that the BLM will be required to follow the Administrative Procedures Act, as well. That is very important to us,” says Loper about the changes to the appeals process.
“Certainly this bill is a good thing for everyone in the grazing industry, and I believe it is a good thing for land managers because it makes the processes much better,” says Magagna.
However, he admits that, undoubtedly, there will be opposition from the environmental community, and he anticipates those groups will insist the agencies should shorten permit lengths and do more extensive monitoring of grazing lands.
“I believe it will allow an opportunity to enhance monitoring, because it will be able to look at things longer-term,” says Magagna of the act.
If passed, the Grazing Improvement Act of 2011 looks to provide grazing reform for a number of problems that have plagued grazing permittees for years. Ultimately, Magagna comments that he thinks the act will provide more security for the grazing community.
Saige Albert is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at email@example.com.