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Congdon: ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the plate’

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Powell – Montana lawyer and cattleman Wally Congdon noted that it is important for producers to be involved in public lands planning in order to allow the industry voice to be heard now. 

“Agriculture is a national heritage,” Congdon said. “The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) says that the government recognizes an obligation for the broadest range of beneficial uses possible, and that they seek to preserve important cultural and natural aspects of our national heritage.”

NEPA language

Because of the language in NEPA documents, Congdon affirms that agriculturalists have a right to be at the table in federal lands planning.

“The problem is, for the last 30 years, ag has not shown up for the ball game,” he added. “It is a game, and if you are going to play, bring a team.”

He noted that federal land management agencies are making decisions without the input of agriculturalists because the industry hasn’t taken an active stance in supporting their interests until recent years.  

“It is fairly simple process – the problem is no one bothers to read and understand the rules or wants to talk to anyone who knows the rules,” said Congdon.

He further noted that federal agencies even have a guide they use in cooperating with local interests.

“If it didn’t work, the BLM wouldn’t have published their Desk Guide to Cooperating Agency Relationships and Coordination with Intergovernmental Partners,” added Congdon. 

According to Congdon, NEPA requires that the government recognize an obligation for the broadest range of beneficial uses possible, as well. He emphasized that BLM is also responsible to coordinate land use plans with those of local governments.

“‘In providing guidance to BLM personnel, the BLM state director shall assure such guidance is consistent with officially adopted and approved related plans, policies and programs for other state agencies, Indians tribes and local governments that may be affected,’” said Congdon, quoting NEPA. “The federal policy has to be as consistent as possible with local policy, as long as the local government has one.”

“If you have a weed management plan for your jurisdiction, or a fire plan for the local fire district, that is part of local governments,” he added. 

At the table or on the plate?

 “Once you know the rules, you have to play by their rules. Part of the problem is you haven’t shown up and taken the time to be at the game,” said Congdon. “If you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the plate.”

For example, Congdon used the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Strategy of Montana, noting that 33 percent of grasslands and most of waterways were designated as in need of conservation.

“Mountain streams in greatest need of conservation we tallied at 59,364 miles,” Congdon said. “The mountain streams in Montana total 59,364 miles – all of them need conservation according to this.”

The same trend occurred in prairie streams and grassland ecosystems.  

“The gig is over. That was the 2005 policy,” he said. “The document was published in 2008.”

Congdon noted that no one commented, so agriculture is now at risk, saying, “The plan has been there for almost 10 years.”

“Those guys have been playing the ball game for a long time,” he said of groups already involved in NEPA projects, “and we have been sitting on our butts.”

Preserving heritage

“The first best thing that you can do in terms of local custom, local heritage and local history,” he said, “is collect information about your heritage.”

Congdon added that economic development, economic sustainability and heritage are also included in land use planning, and agriculture is a vibrant part of both the economy, culture and heritage of the country. 

“The Forest Service is obligated to consider and provide for community stability in its decision making process,” he said. “Community stability is defined as the combination of local custom, culture and economic preservation.”

In order to understand local custom, culture and economic preservation, Congdon noted that producers, their families and relatives know their lands better than anyone else, and they should document their knowledge in photographs and in chatting with younger generations. 

“You know what Western Watershed does not and what BLM does not,” Congdon noted, specifically commenting in terms of local custom and heritage.

He also added that those sources of our heritage are beginning to disappear with the passing of the oldest generations. 

“The problem is we are losing a toolbox – knowledge is power,” Congdon said. “The memories are going to be gone. Soon there will be no one to remember it and no one to talk about it.”

He encouraged producers to document their historical buildings and lands using photographs taken on real film, and to have maps of their lands, with roads, historic buildings, and areas of significance indicated to preserve the culture of local areas.

“It is our culture, our custom and our art,” said Congdon of agriculture. “We are agriculture, and we haven’t shown up, but we damn well better, because if we don’t there isn’t going to be any of us left.”

Congdon spoke at the 2013 Northwest College Spring Roundup, held Jan. 25-26. Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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