Grazing rules may cause short term harm to public lands

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, 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.

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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 practices.

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 stewardship.

"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 communities."

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 leases.

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 monitoring data.

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 Reserved.

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