July 26, 2006 – In the latest showdown between contrasting visions of the American West, the federal Bureau of Land Management has rolled out new regulations for livestock grazing on public lands. Environmentalists are taking the agency to court, warning that the rules would trample environmental protections, further endanger wildlife, and close avenues for public oversight.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) claims its new rules, announced earlier this month, will promote "flexibility" for ranchers who have access to hundreds of millions of acres of public rangelands. But conservation groups say the Bureau is seeking to enhance its "working relationship" with ranchers by suppressing public stakeholders.
John Carter, Utah director of the Western Watersheds Project, a group that opposes cattle-grazing on federal lands, called the rules "another step in the effort by public-lands ranchers to divest the American people of ownership of these lands."
Arguing that cattle roaming the Western states form one of the most destructive uses of the countryâ€™s natural resources, groups complain that the new rules would make it nearly impossible to fully address livestock damage to local wildlife. They say that additional bureaucratic hurdles would paralyze the enforcement of Clinton-era guidelines intended to balance grazing with other public-land uses like camping and fishing.
Environmentalists fear that additional bureaucratic hurdles would paralyze the enforcement of Clinton-era guidelines intended to balance grazing with other public-land uses.
Under the new rules, in order to rein in destructive grazing activity, a BLM field manager would first have to conduct long-term environmental monitoring to prove that livestock is causing the damage in the area. Then, the agency could take two years to formulate a remediation plan. Previously, the agency would have to finalize its plan by the start of the next grazing season.
Livestock owners would then be able to ease incrementally into their penalties: if the plan required more than a 10 percent reduction in grazing levels on a land allotment, it could be phased in over up to five years.
BLM spokesperson Tom Gorey said the monitoring requirements of the new rules would ensure that enforcement actions are in line with legal mandates and based on sound science. "Without the proper information, we canâ€™t remedy the situation," he told The NewStandard. He added that in the case of an immediate environmental hazard, a field manager has the authority to issue an emergency order for livestock removal.
But critics counter that the changes will simply give the agency more excuses not to act. Under the previous regulations, a BLM field manager would base a determination on all available information and, even without using formal monitoring data, could act on observations of obvious grazing-related damage. The manager could, for instance, determine immediately that a streambed devoid of fish, severely trampled by cow hoofs and covered in manure, was suffering from grazing-related damage and then order remedial action by the rancher.
Critics say that the requirement for environmental "monitoring" will simply give the agency more excuses not to act.
"Even though the problem is obvious and the remedy is obvious," said Tom Lustig, an attorney with the conservation group National Wildlife Federation, "the new regulations insert this monitoring ploy to delay the BLM and hamper its ability to restore and protect public lands."
Government and academic researchers and environmental organizations have documented that continual depletion and trampling of land by livestock damages waterways and soil and reduces biodiversity.
According to ecologists with the University of Wisconsin, Oregon State University and others, heavy grass consumption by livestock robs forage from competing wildlife species, and degrades sensitive fertile zones that serve as crucial habitats for birds and fish. Meanwhile, studies indicate that overgrazing â€“ the stripping of range vegetation faster than the land can replenish itself â€“ disrupts ecosystems through soil erosion and infestation by non-native weeds.
The new regulations cover some 160 million acres of federal land available to ranchers for grazing animals, primarily sheep and cattle. According to a 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office, the federal government pours more than $120 million annually into grazing programs, most coming from the BLM and the US Forest Service. Ranchers in turn pay subsidized permitting fees at a fraction of the cost of leasing private or state-run rangelands.
According to a BLM analysis of its grazing allotments, from 1998 to 2005, damage from grazing has been "a significant factor in not meeting land health standards" in about 15 percent of the surveyed tracts.
The projected environmental consequences of the rules have been hotly disputed by some environmentalists. Last year, two now-retired BLM scientists publicly claimed that their findings in the rulesâ€™ environmental impact statement, which predicted long-term damage to wildlife, were rewritten and whitewashed by agency higher-ups.
The new rules redefine the publicâ€™s power to influence government regulatory actions on grazing.
In addition to fueling commercial exploitation of rangelands, the new rules forge new property ties between ranchers and their regulators. Permittees and the government will be able to "share title" to federally subsidized infrastructure "improvements" like dams and fences, and to establish joint ownership of local water rights. The BLM says the boost to ranchersâ€™ property will give them incentive to invest in structural improvements and will not encroach on the governmentâ€™s jurisdiction.
But Sara Tucker, an advocate with the environmental law group Earthjustice, said the property-sharing arrangement would drive one more private stake into public ground. Under the new rules, she explained, ranchers "co-own those resources with the BLM â€¦ so itâ€™s harder for the BLM to justify taking that away."
If a grazing permit were revoked for a violation, Tucker speculated, a rancher might even seek property damages from the BLM.
One of the most controversial provisions in the new rules redefines the publicâ€™s power to influence BLM regulatory actions. In the past, individuals and groups could submit a simple request to be included in decisions on grazing management; but under the new rulesâ€™ definition of "interested public," only those who have consistently commented or otherwise participated in the decision-making procedures can be included.
Bobby McEnaney, a public-lands advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a plaintiff in the BLM lawsuit, said that individual agency field offices may vary in how they enforce the new rules. But he added, "The new definition more or less just allows BLM to be arbitrary in deciding who they want to be involved."
And even those who are included in the process may face more barriers when sparring with ranchers over public lands. The new rules will eliminate the agencyâ€™s obligations to consult with the public on the issuing and modification of a grazing permit; the adjustment of grazing-area boundaries; reductions in grazing activities and other land-management actions.
Craig Thompson, of Rock Springs, Wyoming, has participated in negotiations with the agency to address local wildlife damage from grazing, and now fears his community might lose what little leverage it had with BLM officials. Before, Thompson recalled, "they probably would do whatever they wanted to, anyway. But at least we had an opportunity to sit down, and if we yell and get loud enoughâ€¦ and make [our] concerns heard not only here in this room but to the public at large, they may listen to you and compromise. But under these rules, I canâ€™t do anything."