Public Lands Council highlights challenges with federal land regulations
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Endangered Species Act (ESA) and others provide constant challenges for public lands ranchers, says Public Lands Council (PLC) Executive Director Ethan Lane, who adds that these tools require ranchers to consider far beyond the score of their operation in implementing management actions of public land.
“Imagine that we’re watching a football game,” he says. “The game is going really badly, so we want to switch to something else, but what if we can’t change the channel? What if we have to identify, evaluate and dismiss every single possibility for the impacts to our surrounding before we push that button?”
Lane adds that, if people watching TV had to consider impacts like the noise differential of the football game compared to other shows, the consumption of snacks or their neighbor watching the game through their window prior to making a decision to change the channel, they would like call the action ridiculous or crazy.
“Unfortunately, this is the reality for ranchers who have to deal with NEPA on a regular basis,” he says.
Lane continues, “Because of NEPA, grass management practices that are accepted around the world must be looked at on a case-by-case basis – and sometimes, it even has to start with an analysis of the cattle program.”
If the evaluation goes well, it has to again be evaluated, and Lane says, “The evaluation of the evaluation may also need approval.”
The resulting process is long, drawn-out and often manipulated by opponents of grazing.
“And NEPA isn’t the only challenge standing in the way of public lands ranchers,” he adds.
ESA also creates problems for ranchers around the West.
“ESA has become a favorite weapon among citizen groups,” Lane says. “These groups file hundreds of low-bar, procedural lawsuits demanding that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) make listing determinations on a species or subspecies, many of which are indistinguishable.”
Those species on the ESA have less than a two percent recovery rate, and Lane emphasizes that no resources are being channeled toward recovery efforts.
He continues that the Center for Biological Diversity and Wild Earth Guardians praise the settlements that are reached behind closed doors with FWS.
“The listing process is broken, and the agency is battered by years of political meddling,” Land comments. “Environmental groups have found a strategy that is almost flawless. They overwhelm the agencies, and the agencies are left to wade through listings.”
A never-ending stream of critical habitat, optimal conditions, population counts, voluntary conservation efforts and more roll through federal offices to avoid threat of listing species under the ESA.
“The problem with all of this – unless the goal is to shut down multiple use, is a web of conflicting, one-size-fits-all management decisions with awful results,” he adds. “More and more we are seeing years of scientific evaluation in pasture rotation, timing, water resource protection, residual matter, invasive species control and more get thrown out the window for a single species that is generating contention.”
Sage grouse example
As a recent example, Lane looks inside the sage grouse issue.
“In the case of the Greater sage grouse, the species was found to be not warranted for listing after recent reports showed a 63 percent rebound in population over the past two years,” he says. “That is great, but along with it came an almost indecipherable list of resource management plans (RMPs) and land use plan amendments that lock in the restrictions and avoid the bad press of a listing.”
For example, restrictions on habitat prove to be problematic for a variety of reasons, according to Lane.
“After all the evaluation work to determine whether to turn off the football game, it’s like telling us that we can’t change the channel because the Arizona Cardinals are a species of greater conservation concern,” he says, continuing his metaphor from earlier. “We have to watch the game after all.”
Despite that sage grouse is not listed, Lane notes that ranchers are forced to comply with restrictions in their full force.
Benefits of ranchers
On public lands, Lane continues that ranchers provide important management at low cost to the federal government.
“It costs the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) five dollars to manage every acre of un-grazed land,” he says. “Place a rancher on the land, and the cost drops to two dollars per acre.”
Across the 250 million acres in the West, the federal government saves $750 million annually as a result of livestock grazers.
“In round numbers, BLM would need a 60 percent budget increase to manage the land without grazing,” Lane comments. “Without these families, lands would fall into disrepair, be consumed by invasive species and lose the value we maintain.”
From the agencies
Lane further emphasizes that even the federal agencies agree that grazing is beneficial.
“BLM says that well-managed grazing provides numerous environmental benefits and supports healthy watersheds, carbon sequestration, recreational opportunities and wildlife habitat,” he says. “The U.S. Forest Service says grazing can replicate natural processes and keep lands healthy.”
He adds that USDA agrees proper grazing is the most ecologically sustainable benefit from agriculture.
“Despite all that praise for grazing, the federal government can sometimes be its own worst enemy,” Lane says.
Lane spoke during the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Cattle Industry Convention and Trade Show, held in late January in San Diego, Calif.
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.