WSGA share livestock updates and legal advice
Pinedale – With many ranchers in Wyoming holding grazing permits on public lands, navigating federal agencies’ processes and policies can seem overwhelming. With an eye to educating permittees on their actual rights – or lack thereof – the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) hosted a members’ update followed by a special program for Sublette County ranchers in Pinedale on Aug. 9 with Colorado attorney Cody Doig.
WSGA President Dennis Sun opened the meeting, welcoming personnel from the Forest Service (FS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and overviewing the challenges of operating on federal lands. WSGA Executive Director Jim Magagna then introduced Cody Doig, attorney with C.E. Brookes and Associates in Denver, Colo.
Doig said his presentation, titled “Federal Livestock Grazing Permits – Rights, Privileges and Protecting Your Ranch,” is informed by his working relationship with Connie Brooks, who has been involved with these issues for 30 years.
It’s important to understand grazing privileges on public lands and know “how to be involved with permits,” he said.
More importantly, he explained, permittees actually have few, if any, legal rights recognized by courts when it comes down to use or need. Where they do have rights is in the relevant agency’s decision-making process, which can be affected by ranchers “connecting the dots” for decision-makers.
The first step in taking advantage of opportunities to be engaged, build good relationships with FS or BLM range personnel and protect permittee interests starts with keeping folders for grazing permits in a way that documents conversations and decisions, Doig told the audience.
Then, if permittees want to protest or try to find a compromise for a BLM or FS permit decision, they have a solid foundation of information. There are required processes under federal regulations where ranchers have the right to interrupt with or without legal assistance.
Case law has shown time and again that permits are not accompanied by any rights to forage or to the land, Doig said.
“The Taylor Grazing Act gave the Secretary of the Interior authority to divide grazing districts, to specify the amount of grazing and issue a permit – but it did not create any right to it,” he said.
Rather, he explained, a grazing permit is a “license” or “tacit consent” for the land’s use – “implied license from the custom of 100 years.”
The Federal Land Management Policy Act (FLPMA) “has the exact same language as the Taylor Grazing Act,” Doig continued.
Fighting for rights
He then used the decades-long litigation by the Wayne Hage family as an example of fighting for “rights” that the Supreme Court denies come with permits.
“Don’t bet the ranch,” he said. “Legal theories that haven’t won, won’t win, unless Congress changes some laws. If we pursue it, it will just cost time, energy and maybe a ranch.”
Also, the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment about property rights will not protect grazing permits “as compensable property.”
As for “strict adherence to policies and manuals – they change. We’ve already seen them change since last Monday,” Doig said. “They are malleable, nonbinding documents.”
He added that interpretations can also vary from one district or field office to the next.
Decisions and appeals
Doig also broke down the decision and appeal processes for FS and BLM permittees.
“What do the regulations say? What does FLPMA say? We have to start there,” Doig advised.
With folders for grazing allotment permits on public lands, Doig advised, potential conflicts or unpleasant changes might be remedied early on by including the permittee’s entire family history with the BLM or FS.
For those without past documents, Doig noted that BLM and FS files are available from the permitting agency’s own files or can be obtained in a very detailed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the agency.
Agency files should be kept in the relevant folders with all documentation needed for permit renewal, which Doig said is ranchers’ “due diligence” to undertake as soon as current permits are renewed.
Doig emphasized that ranchers must stay involved in their permits and not be complacent about involvement with federal lands agencies.
“We also can’t just turn on and turn off and forget about being involved for another eight years,” Doig said, adding, “We should work with our range conservationists and agency personnel. Prepare for permit renewal and get involved with local governments and conservation districts. Get the ranch’s complete file. Document previous discussions.”
Building these foundations “may be intimidating, but if done in the spirit of cooperation, permittees can get good results, especially if they have concerns that might be resolved well before final decisions,” he noted.
“It comes back to the fact that it’s the responsibility of a permittee to provide as much information as possible,” Doig said.
Magagna agreed, “I think we as permittees can help a lot with this process.”
Joy Ufford is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. She is also a reporter for the Pinedale Roundup and Sublette Examiner. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.