The Bureau of Land Management is taking the initial steps to overhaul grazing regulations on public lands—a flashpoint issue that fueled the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and the 2016 standoff at Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
The BLM is beginning a “scoping” process that will help shape the new regulations, according to a notice scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on Jan. 21.
The grazing regulations apply to an area nearly the size of Texas, or about 155 million acres of federal land across the lower 48 states, mainly in the West. Grazing influences the politics of public lands management and the land’s ability to withstand climate change.
Cattle eat grass and other plants while trampling soils that support wildlife on federal lands. Grazing also affects the spread of invasive plant species and rangeland wildfire, and it has effects on sage-grouse habitat, water use, water quality, biological diversity, and ecosystem resiliency in the face of climate change, according to scientific research from Oregon State University, the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies.
Modernizing Grazing Rules
The BLM in its Federal Register notice said it is overhauling the regulations in part to “modernize” them, improve grazing permitting efficiency, and comply with a 2014 federal law that exempts some grazing permits and leases from environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act.
The agency said it will also include 2016 Government Accountability Office recommendations to prevent unauthorized grazing on federal lands.
A 2016 GAO report issued after the Malheur standoff recommended that the federal government keep records of all incidents of unauthorized grazing on federal land, update penalties for violations, and revise grazing regulations to reflect the best ways that federal agencies can resolve conflicts between the BLM and ranchers who let their livestock roam on federal lands without a permit.
Among the flashpoints for the Malheur standoff was tension between the BLM and ranchers who had been illegally grazing their cattle on federal lands. Similar tensions triggered the 1970s Sagebrush Rebellion, in which ranchers protested BLM grazing policy and federal ownership of public lands in the West.
The BLM’s acting director, William Perry Pendley, has been a champion of sagebrush rebels for decades. His Twitter handle is @Sagebrush_Rebel, and he advocated for grazers’ rights as president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which represents ranchers in cases against the BLM.
The bureau declined to answer questions about the overhaul Friday, providing a press release instead.
“This rulemaking effort is designed to strengthen and improve our administration of grazing permits across the West, and we welcome public and stakeholder ideas and perspectives,” Casey B. Hammond, acting assistant Interior secretary of land and minerals management, said in the statement.
Cutting Out Public Input?
“Changes to the regulations are a big deal for the West,” said Greta Anderson, deputy director for the Western Watersheds Project, which launched a court challenge to George W. Bush administration efforts to relax compliance requirements for grazing regulation.
Anderson said she worries the language of the BLM’s announcement suggests the agency may reduce standards for land health.
The announcement says BLM will “explore ways to use livestock grazing to reduce wildfire risk and improve rangeland health,” but Anderson said there is little scientific evidence that shows grazing can accomplish that.
She also said she worries BLM may reduce opportunities for public involvement in grazing decisions.
The BLM’s announcement says the agency seeks to ensure “adequate” public participation “without unduly burdening administrative processes.”
“Ranchers are going to have more of a free pass to do what they want, and the opportunity for the public to push back on their narrow interests will be limited,” Anderson said, based on the text of the notice.
‘Good Regulations and Good Processes’
Mary Jo Rugwell, who retired last year as director of the BLM in Wyoming, said the BLM’s existing grazing regulations work well if the bureau enforces them.
“We have good regulations and good processes,” she said. “My concern is that this is an effort to loosen the regulations in a way that might not be good for the public lands.”
The BLM hasn’t released a timeline for completing its overhaul of the grazing regulations.
Bob Abbey, who served as BLM director in the Obama administration, said grazing regulations need to be updated to account for various court rulings and changes in federal law.
“I am supportive of new language that provides the agency with greater flexibility within grazing permits to allow for changes in range conditions and improving efficiencies in the permitting processes, as long as there is continued emphasis on land health,” Abbey said.
A public comment period on the grazing regulations overhaul ends on March 6 following four public meetings in February. Those meetings will be in small, relatively isolated Western cities: Miles City, Mont.; Las Cruces, N.M.; Elko, Nev.; and Casper, Wyo.
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