Ranchers: Bill would bring much-needed regulatory relief
By Carol Ryan Dumas
With Thursday’s passage in the House of the Grazing Improvement Act, H.R. 657, ranchers say they are one step closer to untangling what has become an onerous process to be able to graze on public lands.
The bill extends grazing permits from 10 to 20 years, allows expired permits to be extended until the renewal process is complete, and allows exclusions to environmental assessments under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA).
It also requires groups not substantially justified or directly affected by final federal grazing decisions to pay for the legal expenses of the other party when they lose a grazing challenge in court.
The amendment, introduced by Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, was incorporated into the Public Access and Lands Improvement Act, H.R. 2954, which passed 220-194.
The grazing act is a big improvement to current regulations that have backlogged permit renewals and tied the hands of land-management agencies, said Jared Brackett, president of the Idaho Cattle Association and a rancher near Rogerson, Idaho.
Collectively, the provisions in the bill make the Grazing Administration process more efficient, said Karen Williams, natural resource policy adviser for ICA, which is where the bill originated.
Ranchers still have to meet environmental standards but it cleans up the process. NEPA assessments take years, and permits are held up by litigation based on formalities not what’s taking place on the land, she said.
If there are no changes on grazing allotments and ranchers are meeting environmental standards, it allows permitting agencies to make categorical exclusions to the NEPA assessment. In addition, by changing permits from 10 years to 20 years, it would reduce paperwork by half for those agencies, which is taking land managers off the ground, she said.
“It is certainly an improvement and will help simplify the permitting process,” said Mike Guerry, who runs sheep on BLM, Forest Service and private land.
NEPA was put in place for major decisions on public land, but now everything requires anassessment, he said.
“An annual permit renewal with no major changes shouldn’t have to go through the NEPA steps,” he said.
Even trailing permits for small trails that have been used for years to move livestock through an allotment need a NEPA assessment. It doesn’t make any sense, he said
Ranchers say reining in NEPA, which environmental groups have used to sue land-management agencies and tie up permits, would be welcome relief. The bill would also exclude trailing and livestock crossing permits from a required NEPA assessment, Brackett said.
“NEPA has been horribly abused by environmental groups,” he said.
It wasn’t put in place for common practices, he said, but was meant for major land-use changes, such as putting in a transmission line, gas line or roads.
Brackett grazes BLM, Forest Service and private land, and three years ago, he and other permittees had to remove cattle from BLM land for three months to satisfy a stipulated agreement in an environmental group’s lawsuit against BLM.
Most of the lawsuits end in stipulated settlements, with environmental groups abusing the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) to recover their legal fees. The goal of Labrador’s loser-pays provision is to keep frivolous lawsuits to a minimum, Brackett said.
Unsubstantiated environmental litigation delays the process of putting permits in place and in a timely fashion and limits resource mangers’ abilities. But it’s going to be an uphill battle to keep the loser-pays provision in grazing legislation, Guerry said.
Though supporters say the provision is justified, it will be tough to get it passed given the make-up of Congress and opposition by groups who raise funding by suing, Williams said.
A similar grazing bill that doesn’t include the loser-pays provision was passed by the Senate Energy Committee in late November. It does, however, include a troubling pilot program in Oregon and New Mexico to permanently retire grazing leases that are relinquished by permit holders, she said.