DC, January 5, 2004 (ENS): Proposed revisions
to federal rules that govern grazing on public lands
could result in some short term harm to the environment,
according to a draft environmental assessment of the
rule changes released Friday. But any potential harm
will be outweighed by the long term benefits of the
new federal grazing regulations, Bush administration
officials say, and the changes are necessary to help
sustain grazing on public lands.
has 60 days to comment on the draft environmental
impact statement, which can be viewed at www.blm.gov
The potential for "some short term adverse effects" to the environment
comes from the extended time frames dictated by the
revised regulations and the phase in of some of the
changes, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) explained
in its draft environmental impact statement.
The proposal, announced in December, gives land managers
with the BLM more time to address harmful grazing practices.
It reverses a 1995 rule created by the Clinton administration
that called on the BLM to take quick action whenever
it determined legal grazing under a federal permit was
undermining the health of the land. The Clinton rule
ordered the BLM to correct the action within a year
- before the next grazing permit year begins.
The new proposal extends that time frame for action
to two years and leaves no specific mechanism to force
the BLM to take prompt action against damaging grazing
According to Bush administration officials, the BLM
can still act to mitigate harmful grazing practices
and the new rules will enhance cooperation and communication
with public land ranchers, resulting in improved rangeland
"Better and more sustainable grazing decisions
would be the outcome of using monitoring data and taking
the time to ensure complete communication, consultation
and coordination with permittees or lessees and interested
public, and completing other administrative obligations,"
the BLM said in the draft statement.
The proposal will assist the agency in "accomplishing
its shared stewardship purpose in a manner that works
well in the social and economic environment of affected
The BLM oversees 261 million acres of public land -
some 160 million are authorized for grazing and the
agency manages more than 18,000 grazing permits and
The agency acknowledged that some of its revisions
- in particular the five year phase in of changes to
active use and additional monitoring requirements -
"would result in an additional workload and costs
to the BLM."
The draft impact statement notes that to accommodate
this shift in workload, the BLM will need to reprioritize
other tasks and find alternative means of collecting
In a December speech announcing the rule changes, Interior
Department Secretary Gale Norton stressed the importance
of public lands ranching to the rural West.
The industry is on the front lines of conservation
efforts, Norton said, and is helping preserve open space
in the rapidly growing West.
"This proposal recognizes that ranching is crucial
not only to the economies of Western rural communities,
but also to the history, social fabric, and cultural
identity of these communities," Norton said.
The proposal also rewards livestock owners by allowing
them to claim water rights on public lands and split
ownership with the federal government for permanent
range improvements, such as a fence, well or pipeline.
It orders federal land managers to consider and document
the social, cultural and economic consequences of decisions
affecting grazing and removes limits for how long livestock
operators can retain grazing permits for lands they
are not using.
Land managers would not be required to involve the
public on routine matters affecting grazing decisions,
according to the proposal, which also eliminates existing
regulatory provisions that allow the BLM to issue long
term "conservation use" grazing permits.
Western livestock interests support the revisions,
but critics say the Bush proposal undermines environmental
protections for federal grazing land and do little reform
a system they believe short changes the environment
and the American taxpayer.
Decades of unsustainable grazing practices permitted
by the BLM have imperiled wildlife, degraded water quality,
and harmed uncounted archaeological, historic and Native
American treasures, environmentalists say, and the proposed
rule will make it more difficult for the BLM to remove
permit holders who overgraze and damage the environment.
Critics argue that ranchers do not have an inherent
right to use public lands, and say the current system
often encourages overgrazing and provides a large subsidy
to a relatively small group.
Only three percent of U.S. livestock producers have
federal grazing permits and an October 2002 study by
the Center for Biological Diversity found that the minimum
cost to U.S. taxpayers of the federal grazing on public
lands is $128 million.
But this number could be as high as $1 billion, the
Center determined, because of indirect costs from resource
damage and subsidies.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2004. All Rights