In December 2003 the Bush administration unveiled a proposal to alter the rules that now govern livestock grazing on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) public lands. The proposed changes, published in the Federal Register on Dec. 8, would overturn efforts over the past decade to improve rangeland conditions and reduce the impacts of grazing on watersheds, wildlife, and cultural treasures.
In 1995, the Clinton administration implemented new management regulations aimed at ending decades of overgrazing and other unsustainable grazing practices. Poor management of public lands grazing by the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has led to degraded water quality, placed wildlife and habitat at risk, and threatened historic and archeological sites.
The Bush administration's action seeks to substantially modify the 1995 rules and eliminate a variety of public lands protections, including:
Ending the requirement for prompt action to address harmful grazing practices
Under the 1995 rules, whenever BLM learns that legal grazing under a federal permit has been undermining rangeland conditions, the agency is then required to take action to correct the situation before the next grazing season begins. Timely implementation of grazing decisions for correcting environmental damage has resulted in reducing resource damage, thereby promoting more diverse, healthier ecosystems.
The Bush administration proposal will extend the time frame for action to two years, crippling the BLMís ability to take prompt action against damaging grazing practices in almost all situations. The Bush administration proposal will also require that any reduction in stocking rate exceeding 10 percent must be implemented over a 5-year period.
These changes in grazing management could have significant and long-term adverse effects upon wildlife resources and biological diversity in general, but they could be especially problematic for many of the special status species on public lands, especially imperiled native plants and endangered animal species as the Lahontan cutthroat trout, desert tortoise, southwestern willow flycatcher, and the yellow-billed cuckoo.
Concerning the short-term time extension, delayed changes in a grazing permit for up to 18 months will allow for additional grazing-induced degradation of riparian and aquatic habitat. In the case of a riparian area that is functioning-at-risk with a downward trend, one additional grazing season combined with a high flow event could cause that riparian-aquatic system to become non-functional. Concerning the long-term time extension, these proposed regulation changes would result in cumulative delays that will likely result in a protracted, 7-10 year period for full implementation of many, if not most, meaningful natural resource-protecting decisions.
Years of monitoring will be required before action is taken against damaging grazing
The 1995 rules were designed to address a catch-22 situation, in which BLM was required to perform years of monitoring and data collection — which it could not afford — before determining whether grazing practices should be changed. A U.S. General Accounting Office study showed that BLM had neither the money nor the staff to perform this monitoring, resulting in decades of ongoing rangeland damage with no action by BLM. The Bush administration proposes to re-institute this untenable monitoring requirement, thus virtually guaranteeing that BLM will be unable to ever determine whether action should be taken to halt or improve unsustainable grazing.
This result could have an especially severe impact on the aquatic resources on BLM lands. Degradation of stream channel morphology and water quality will continue in drought-stressed, frequently-grazed watersheds with declining vegetative cover due to the increasing and burdensome administrative procedural requirements for assessment and for acquisition of monitoring data.
Public Input into Decisions about Grazing on Public Lands will be Restricted
The Bush administration is proposing to limit public participation to so-called "major decisions," such as the development of land use plans. Unfortunately, the BLMís broader land use plans are not designed to address a wide variety of crucial grazing decisions, such as how to address alleged violations of grazing permits and plans to reduce the number of livestock allowed on an allotment. One consequence of this Bush administration proposal would be the exclusion of certain renewals of grazing permits or leases from National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis.
The implementation of this action would have a negative effect on riparian and aquatic resources. Bypassing NEPA analysis for permit renewals would eliminate the BLMís obligation to assess and document existing riparian and aquatic conditions on a site-specific basis. Without NEPA analysis, BLM would be less likely to add stipulations designed to maintain or enhance riparian and aquatic conditions to newly-issued grazing permits.
The proposed regulatory deletion of the requirements to consult, cooperate and coordinate with, or seek review and comment from the "interested public" will reduce the ability of environmental groups and organizations to participate and support wildlife and special status species with regard to public land grazing issues. This will limit input on designating and adjusting allotment boundaries, reducing permitted use, emergency closures or modifications, renewing/issuing grazing permit/leases, modifying a permit/lease and issuing temporary non-renewable grazing permits This will likely result in long-term adverse impacts to wildlife and special status species on public lands.
On the other hand, the requirement for the BLM to cooperate with State, local, or county established grazing boards in reviewing range improvements and allotment management plans on public lands will result in giving permittees and lessees greater access to the decision making process at the expense of conservation groups who are advocates for wildlife resources.
This requirement will give greater emphasis to those local entities that favor extraction of forage and water resources at the expense of wildlife and biological diversity. In addition, this requirement will give local entities greater influence over decision making than national interests that are excluded from this venue. This would generate a long-term adverse impact for wildlife and special status species resources.
Finally, the proposed regulations would affect the interested public at the appeal level. Narrowing the definition of who is considered a "party" to a case will negatively affect riparian and aquatic resources. Current regulations allow any "interested public" to appeal a grazing decision. In most instances, the "interested public" who appeals grazing decisions is a conservation organization whose appeal is based on documentation of negative impacts from livestock grazing to riparian, fisheries, wildlife, or threatened and endangered species habitat.
Conservation organizations help BLM by identifying and documenting detrimental livestock grazing impacts on public lands, which enables BLM to more effectively protect riparian and aquatic habitat. In short, including all interested parties in the appeals process has had a long-term positive impact for wildlife and special status species. The change in definition of "interested public" will limit the ability of environmental groups to participate in the appeals process in the interest of wildlife. This limitation will also likely result in long-term, adverse impacts to wildlife and special status species on public lands.
Limiting the conditions under which a grazing permit may be revoked
The Bush proposal would make it easier for livestock owners to violate applicable laws without fear that their permits could be revoked.
Current regulations allow livestock operators to be cited for certain prohibited acts. The proposed regulations would eliminate some of these prohibited acts. Elimination of several acts prohibited by current regulations would have both short and long term negative effects for riparian and aquatic resources. If BLM loses its enforcement authority to punish violators by not issuing, suspending, or canceling their grazing permits, then these prohibited acts become more likely to occur on public lands.
Giving ranchers ownership of so-called "range improvements" and water rights
Under the current proposal, the Bush administration would give livestock owners clear title to permanent rangeland installations such as wells, fences, and pipelines on BLM lands. This proposal could lead livestock owners to claim that their private property has been impinged on by environmentally-protective actions ordered by federal land managers. The result could be that land managers will be increasingly unwilling to take actions that livestock owners could interpret as "takings" of their property.
The Bush administration is also proposing to allow ranchers to own water rights on public lands, a step that could interfere with BLM's ability to manage these lands for all users. Ranchers could claim a right to compensation if, for example, BLM takes action to bar livestock from a grazing allotment to protect downstream resources.
In the cases of Hage v. United States, 35 Fed. Cl. 147, 180 (1996) and Hage v. United States, 42 Fed. Cl. 249 (1998), a federal court held that a public lands operator had ownership of certain water rights on a public land grazing allotment; that operator, therefore, has the right to graze on certain associated public lands in order to utilize that water.
By facilitating privately-held ownership of water rights and range improvements on BLM lands, these new Bush administration regulations will enable livestock operators to indirectly secure rights to graze on public BLM lands, even if such grazing is likely to damage the natural resources of those public lands. This will greatly diminish the ability of the BLM to regulate grazing and will create long-term impacts to wildlife resources.
The Creation of Reserve Common Allotments (Withdrawn)
In the original Bush Administration proposal, the BLM would have gained authority to create Reserve Common Allotments (RCAs). After pressure from both the ranching community and environmental groups, this provision was removed in the revised proposal. Creation of RCAs would have had a mixed effect on riparian and aquatic resources. The positive effect would have been that RCAs would have provided a negotiating tool for the agency by allowing them to give permittees a place to graze their livestock while the land attached to their base property underwent restoration. The negative effects of the originally proposed RCAs were twofold:
First, RCAs would have been located on public lands that may have been left ungrazed. Since the ungrazed condition is usually optimal for riparian and aquatic resources, continued livestock grazing would usually lead to a decline in riparian and aquatic condition on RCA lands.
Secondly, in some cases, RCAs would have served as an undesirable "safety net" for permittees who had mismanaged land assigned to their base property.
By giving such permittees an option to continue grazing while their home range undergoes restoration and recovery, RCAs would have, in effect, been encouraging a level of grazing on BLM land that would generate adverse impacts. The availability of RCAs would have, in some instances, served to remove the incentive for permittees to graze their public land allotment responsibly.
In short, the Sierra Club believes that the Bush administrationís proposed BLM grazing regulations will have a long-term adverse impact on wildlife and biological diversity in general. Upland and riparian habitats will continue to decline due to the lengthening of an already burdensome grazing management process, the BLMís ability to control illegal and resource-degrading activities on public lands will further erode, and livestock operators opportunities to acquire rights to livestock range improvements and water rights on public lands will increase.
The cumulative effects resulting from all these and other changes will be significant and adverse for wildlife and biological diversity in the long-term. The numbers of special status species will continue to increase in the future under this alternative.
Write A Letter
The Bureau of Land Management has released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) prepared in connection with a proposed grazing rule that the BLM published in December 2003. To review the DEIS, go to at http://www.blm.gov/grazing/. You can express your concerns about the proposed regulations by submitting comments through the DEIS review process. You can submit your comments electronically using the BLM's "ePlanning" Web-based public comment system. You may access ePlanning at http://www.blm.gov/grazing/.
If you do not have access to a computer, comments may be mailed to:
Director (220), Bureau of Land Management, Eastern States Office, 7450 Boston Boulevard, Springfield, Virginia 22153, Attn: Revised Grazing Regulations DEIS.
You may deliver your comments to: 1620 L Street, NW, Suite 1075, Washington, D.C. 20036, Attn: Revisions to Grazing Regulations DEIS.
Comments on the proposed regulations and the BLM discussion of the regulations in the DEIS should be as specific as possible and address the adequacy of the DEIS or the merits of the alternatives discussed, or both. The comment period for the DEIS will end on March 2, which is also the closing date for public comments on the proposed grazing rule.
If you have questions regarding the Draft EIS, please feel free to contact Molly Brady, Project Lead, at Molly_Brady@blm.gov.
Note: In your comments you could discuss one or more of the points discussed previously. Please DO NOT COPY THE COMMENTS ABOVE AND SEND THEM ON AS IS. Choose one or more subjects and rewrite the letter in your own words. If you know about local problems with grazing on BLM lands, please feel free to include your knowledge and concerns about on the ground issues. If you know of some action the BLM has taken locally which has improved the health of a landscape (but which would be delayed if the regulations go into effect), you could include that as a comment.
Be sure to sign your letter with your name and address.
Attend A Public Hearing and Speak Out
The BLM has also announced a series of public meetings that it will hold in the West and in Washington, D.C., on the draft environmental impact statement. The Western meetings are scheduled for late January and early February in Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Boise, and Cheyenne.
The schedule for the public meetings on the DEIS is as follows:
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