Producers testify in congressional hearing
Evanston – On Aug. 7, Reps. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) and Rob Bishop (R-Utah) heard testimony from Nevada, Utah and Wyoming citizens on concerns with the federal government’s regulatory approach on federal lands management.
The purpose of the hearing, as stated by the committee, was “to examine the various regulatory burdens placed on the grazing industry by the federal government.”
Wyoming sheep producers Shaun Sims of Evanston and Pat O’Toole of Savery were joined by Cheyenne Attorney Karen Budd-Falen, Utah Farm Bureau CEO Randy Parker and Elko County, Nev. Commission Demar Dahl as they discussed the impacts of federal land management, ranging from the H-2A program to Bighorn sheep and water.
“The hearing went very well,” commented Sims following the hearing. “It was held locally, and there were close to 80 people there. The committee was very receptive to our comments, and I think this hearing will have a positive effect.”
Wyoming Stock Growers Association Executive Vice President Jim Magagna added, “The comments from this hearing create a record for these concerns. That is important. If we have to ask Congress to weigh in to stop Department of Labor regulations going forward, for example, there will be a record on it.”
Sims and O’Toole, both sheep producers, provided the Congressional committee with insight into their operations and how the Department of Proposed Rule for Temporary Agricultural Employment of H-2A Foreign Workers will affect their businesses.
In his testimony, Sims noted that a series of special procedures have allowed for monthly wage rates, mobile housing and longer contracts since the 1950s to facilitate the unique nature of the livestock herding industry.
Following a 2011 lawsuit by four former herders, Sims says, “The case was dismissed in 2013 for lack of standing but was subsequently appealed. The appeals court reversed the decision and directed the Department of Labor to proceed with rulemaking for these special procedures.”
He further added that the two most egregious changes in the rules are the wage rate and definition of open range.
“I talked about the H-2A issue. We don’t have the demand economics in the proposed rule, specifically for the wages, or the definitions of open range. We feel the rule is not representative of what is on the ground,” Sims explained. “We feel that they need to scrap the entire rule. It is too vague and too open for interpretation.”
O’Toole agreed with Sims, saying, “The Department of Labor proposes to take away the platform that underpins current resource management in the West and to override or make impossible the current regulatory matrix set forth by other federal agencies. This power grab has no basis in improving workers’ situations and is done without input from employers, workers or legislative oversight.”
As another concern for producers, Sims explained to the committee that threats of litigation have changed management of public lands to the detriment of producers.
“Decisions by our public lands managers are based on the threat of litigation,” Sims testified. “As a result, we increasingly see the agencies enter into settlement agreements. This is having a profound and demoralizing effect on our public lands managers and the professionals that manage the range resource we use.”
The threat of litigation too often results in animal unit month (AUM) reductions or additional restrictions on grazing, Sims added.
Budd-Falen also addressed litigation, including the use of the Equal Access to Justice Act by environmental groups.
“Since 1995, there has been no accounting or transparency of how the American tax money is being paid to environmental groups to sue the federal government,” Budd-Falen wrote in prepared comments.
“Karen also talked about the litigation and how groups are affecting BLM and Forest Service decisions,” Sims explained. “She looked at how agencies are settling agreements with no oversight because they don’t want to be sued. Agencies are managing under fear of litigation.”
The panel of witnesses also looked at other issues, ranging from Bighorn sheep conflicts, to the Endangered Species Act, waters of the U.S. rule, wild horses and other topics – all of which have profound impacts on public lands grazers.
“With the insecurity that looming decisions have made, it is almost impossible to plan any long-term management for our ranches,” Sims said. “I take pride in the fact that my family has been in agriculture production since 1865. My biggest fear is that, due to these upcoming decisions and the litigious attacks on grazing, our ranch and others will come to an end on my watch.”
O’Toole also mentioned that he is optimistic moving forward, and he credited Rep. Lummis for her hard work on bringing light to the issues.
“It’s important to keep the pedal to the metal on these issues,” he commented. “There are people who have a lot of respect for our industry. It’s easy to be worried about our opposition, but we have friends, too.”
O’Toole concluded his testimony saying, “I can only hope that leaders in the Obama Administration seriously reconsider the cumulative impacts of the resulting regulatory measures before adding additional chapters to what farmers and ranchers already see as a very large rulebook.”
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at email@example.com.