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Conservation Cuts in the Farm Bill are Puzzling

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

By Rachel Gabel

Never has there been an administration as focused on conservation as the Biden administration. 

I don’t support the administration’s flagrant use of monument designations, their decisions about public land management – like those in progress in Wyoming’s Rock Springs Management Area – or the final rule just released by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) which foolishly defines conservation as a multiple use. 

However, in the shadow of these seemingly conservation-centric decisions, the proposed conservation cuts in the farm bill are puzzling.

Reaching a new farm bill agreement has been a long and tedious process, and there are potential cuts to conservation programs which could cost Colorado agriculture producers nearly $230 million in the process of cutting $20 billion of conservation funds made available for U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation funds. 

This is far from the only threat bearing down on Colorado ag producers. The list includes high input costs, widely varying commodity costs, land availability, land loss due to urban sprawl, always unpredictable weather, an aging producer population, damaging legislation and plenty of terrible decisions made by those without skin in the proverbial game.

In a time of focus on conservation, best practices and best available tools and technologies, ag producers are embracing and continuing conservation practices touted as sustainable, though I argue ag operations that have been successfully operated for generations are the very definition of sustainable.

Rock Springs Resource Management Plan

As mentioned previously, the BLM announced a final rule the agency claims will “guide balanced management” of public lands. 

Public lands are multiple use, meaning they are to be managed according to the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA), by balancing recreation, mining, energy, timber and grazing, even if the use or uses in question are less palatable to the extremist types.

According to National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) President and Wyoming Rancher Mark Eisele, these changes to the leasing structure for federal lands without authorization of direction from Congress defies the BLM’s statutory responsibility to ensure multiple use on public lands.

Just as farmers who have been in the business of feeding their neighbors for generations are, ranchers are stewards of lands and animals and are the original conservationists. 

Sensible land management doesn’t include erasing the very real conservation value of grazing, nor does it include removing land from all uses in the name of conservation.

In Wyoming, the Rock Springs Resource Management Plan (RMP) has been in development for 12 years and so far carries a $9 million price tag. The BLM threw aside 12 years of stakeholder input from the Governor’s Office to the ground and issued the agency’s preferred alternative which was as far from sensible as one can get. 

With no stakeholder engagement prior to the announcement since 2020, the BLM surprised Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, local residents, state and local leadership and the communities who depend upon all of the multiple uses made possible by the proper management of the 3.6 million acres of public lands in the area, with the alternative that closes the gates to energy, agriculture and recreation.

The alternative proposed by the BLM in the Rock Springs RMP increases the areas of critical environmental concern (ACEC) by over 1.3 million acres. 

Conservation and Landscape Health rule

As if on cue, the final rule released by the BLM on “Conservation and Landscape Health” depends upon ACECs to determine which lands can be ripped from the hands of Americans.

Anyone can nominate land to be designated as an ACEC, coincidentally. It’s great news for extremists who hate economic and beneficial activities like mining, energy and grazing, as many decisions from this administration tend to be.

According to NCBA and the Public Lands Council, who put a sharp pencil to paper, federal rangelands generate more than $3 billion annually in ecosystem services, which amounts to more than $20 per public acre of land grazed by cattle or sheep. 

If appropriated tax dollars and grazing fees paid by ranchers are added, the net return is more than $19 on each grazed acre. Ecosystem services provided by grazing are nothing to sneeze at and include wildfire mitigation, reduction of invasive species, carbon sequestration, improved wildlife habitat and preservation of open green space for recreation.

The $2.1 billion in economic output attributable to livestock grazing is more than simply lagniappe.

There’s nothing sensible about land management via non-management.

Rachel Gabel is a longtime agriculture writer and the assistant editor of The Fence Post Magazine. This column was originally published in the Colorado Springs Gazette on April 29.

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