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Barrasso ‘grazing rights’ bill passes Senate committee

Sen. John Barrasso said a grazing rights bill he has been pushing for more than two years has a strong chance of being signed into law.

Barrasso, R-Wyo., praised the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s passage of S. 258, The Grazing Improvement Act. The bill, passed by a voice vote in the Democratic-controlled committee last month, provides greater certainty and stability to the livestock grazing community in the face of constant environmental legal challenges, the senator said in a statement.

“For too long, ranching families have dealt with uncertainty and been the target of anti-grazing litigation that puts their much needed grazing permits in jeopardy,” Barrasso said. “My bill will streamline the permitting process and protect Wyoming’s livestock producers, their jobs and their ability to provide for our communities and our nation. Now, I’m going to push for the Senate to pass this bill immediately and finally give America’s hard-working ranching families the certainty and stability they need.”

Kathleen Jachowski of Cody is the executive director of Guardians of the Range, an organization that favors allowing greater access to grazing.

The group “in large measure” supports the bill, Jachowski said, and feels it has been needed for more than a decade.

“Our support is expressed with the qualification ‘in large measure’ because we, like Senator Barrasso, do not support the bill’s pilot program which was added by amendment and allows for voluntary buyouts of up to 25 allotments per year in Oregon and New Mexico,” she said. “There is no listed expiration date in that program, and it is not market-based.”

Jachowski said the Guardians hope the full House strips that language from the bill. Passing a revised bill is  “extremely important” and will improve rangeland health and stability for public land ranching and rural communities, she said.

Jachowski said anti-grazing interests are filing “unreasonable lawsuits” that seek to remove livestock grazing from federal lands. In addition, increasing the life of a permit from 10 to 20 years will “help ease the bottle neck of permit renewals,” she said.

Barrasso introduced the bill on Feb. 7. It is co-sponsored by eight Republican senators: Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Mike Crapo of Idaho, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, both of Utah, Dean Heller of Nevada, John Hoeven of North Dakota, and Jim Risch of Idaho. Barrasso originally introduced the Grazing Improvement Act in May 2011.

Under current law, livestock grazing permits are valid for 10 years. After 10 years, new environmental analysis is required before a permit can be renewed.  

However, agencies cannot complete the required environmental analysis due to the backlog of lawsuits filed by “extreme environmentalists” intended to delay the permitting process, according to Barrasso’s statement.

Because of that, he said, grazing permit holders and public land management agencies have relied for more than a decade on Congress to temporarily grant continued use of grazing permits every year.

“We’ve heard from folks in Wyoming, including members of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, about grazing permit renewals and how they are being challenged in court under the associated National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) process,” said Laura Mengelkamp, Barrasso’s spokeswoman.

The senator said he believes The Grazing Improvement Act would repair this by allowing the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service to continue issuing grazing permits while an environmental analysis is being completed. It also provides more flexibility.

Mengelkamp said while it’s unclear when the full Senate may vote on it, Barrasso feels it will be approved. A similar bill in the House will pass there, Mengelkamp said, and the bill will become a law unless President Obama vetoes it.

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, introduced the companion bill to Barrasso’s bill on Feb. 13. The House Natural Resources Committee approved it by a vote of 27-15 on July 7 and it now awaits a vote before the full House.

“Going forward, Senator Barrasso is confident that his bill will continue to gain support from both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate and House and ultimately be signed into law,” Mengelkamp said.

The Public Lands Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association praised the fact that the bill moved ahead, and a Park County rancher said he was very happy to see progress.

“The act is vital for ensuring the fate of our producer’s permits — livelihoods are depending on the efficiency of the system — which undoubtedly needs restructuring,” said association President Scott George of Park County. “Not only will the bill codify the language of the decades-old appropriations rider, it will also allow categorical exclusions from NEPA for permits continuing current practices and for crossing and trailing of livestock. Additionally, it will allow for NEPA on a broad scale, reducing paper pushing within the federal agencies.”

The bill that passed was an amendment in the nature of a substitute which included troubling language, creating a pilot program which would allow for limited “voluntary” buyouts, according to a Public Land Council press release.

These “voluntary” buyouts are not actually market-based, due to outside influence, the release stated. Where voluntary relinquishment of a rancher’s grazing permit occurs, grazing would be permanently ended.

“PLC strongly opposes buyouts — voluntary or otherwise,” said Brice Lee, the council’s president and a Colorado rancher. “Ultimately, buyouts create an issue for the industry due to the wealthy special interest groups who work to remove livestock from public lands. The language in the amendment addresses ‘voluntary’ buyouts; however, radical, anti-grazing agendas are likely at play.”

Ken Cole of Boise, Idaho, is a critic of the proposed change in federal grazing policy.

“With passage of this bill out of committee, we are one step closer to listing sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act,” said Cole, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) coordinator for the Western Watersheds Project.

“This bill weakens the regulatory mechanisms that the USFWS (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) found to be inadequate at the same time that states and agencies are trying to strengthen them to avoid listing sage grouse,” he said. “Livestock are one of the greatest threats to sage grouse, and this bill protects grazing to the detriment of sage grouse and all other wildlife on public lands.

“Livestock are the greatest conflict source for all kinds of wildlife, including wild bison, sage grouse, bighorn sheep, native predators, and many other species,” said Cole, who also serves on the board of directors for Buffalo Field Campaign.

“Anything that entrenches livestock on public lands for such a long period of time without NEPA review increases the chance that conflicts will not be adequately addressed,” he said.

Jachowski said this is an issue “not just for northwest Wyoming, but all of Wyoming.”

Anti-grazing interests such as Western Watersheds Project are tracking almost all permit renewals in the Big Horn Basin and elsewhere. The permit renewal process is “crushing and destructive” and negatively impacts federal rangeland when management improvements are delayed or prevented because of lawsuits and paperwork bottlenecks.

One of the positive aspects of Barrasso’s bill is placing the issue before the entire nation, Jachowski said. It’s a matter that deserves more attention and discussion.

1 comment

  • posted by Ken Cole

    December 03, 2013 11:40 am

    For the Public Lands Council to say that voluntary permits aren't a market-based solution is crazy. When you look at the grazing permit system now it is the farthest thing from being market-based because only a limited number of people can actually compete for the permits. Only those who own lands with a grazing preference for a specific allotment can apply for a grazing permit now. The only way for anyone else to have any influence on how these lands are managed is through the permit renewal process mandated by NEPA and other laws and they want to take that right away. That kind of system more resembles a feudal system that only serves the landed, noble elite rather than a market based system that they would like you to think it is.

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