Ruling states Bush administration violated federal laws

By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI

Capital Press

A federal appeals court has rejected an attempt by farm groups to reinstate rancher-friendly regulations for livestock grazing on public lands.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has found that grazing rules adopted by the Bush administration in 2006 violated several federal laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.

The appellate court's ruling, issued on Sept. 1, upholds a 2007 decision by a federal judge in Idaho to permanently block the grazing regulations from taking effect.

The American Farm Bureau Federation and the Public Lands Council had claimed the judge overstepped his authority by enjoining the rules, which were intended to streamline the government's oversight of grazing permits and improve relations with ranchers.

Although the three-judge panel in this case sided with environmental groups, similar cases have resulted in different interpretations of the National Environmental Policy Act, said Rod Walston, an attorney who represented the farm groups.

NEPA requires federal agencies to take a "hard look" at the environmental consequences of their actions. However, courts must defer to the government's expertise unless a decision is clearly contrary to the intent of Congress.

The issue of how much power courts have to block agency decisions has been contentious, which is why the farm groups may ask the 9th Circuit to reconsider the ruling -- or appeal it to the U.S. Supreme Court, said Walston.

"That's a divisive issue," he said. "The 9th Circuit's decisions in the past few years go back and forth on that question."

The farm groups also dispute that the regulations violate the Endangered Species Act, since the rules did not authorize any new activity, such as increased grazing on public lands, Walston said.

The 2006 rules made several controversial changes to how grazing is regulated on lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, including the following amendments:

* Ranchers and the federal government could share ownership of water rights and rangeland structures on public lands. Currently, the government owns all improvements to rangelands constructed by ranchers.

* If grazing was reduced on an allotment by more than 10 percent, the decrease would be phased in over five years instead of immediately.

* The BLM would eliminate some of rangeland health standards that the agency had deemed to overlap with other grazing guidelines.

* Ranchers would have two years to correct violations of grazing rules, rather than immediately or at the start of the next grazing season.

* The BLM would only be allowed to rely on its own monitoring data to determine if grazing rules had been violated, essentially barring the agency from using information collected by environmental groups.

* The agency would limit public participation in certain grazing permit decisions, such as shifting allotment boundaries.

The regulations were challenged in federal court by the Western Watersheds Project and other environmental groups, which claimed the changes would lead to widespread ecological degradation of rangelands.

John Marvel, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, said he was heartened by the 9th Circuit's ruling and discounted claims of overreach by the courts.

"It's a welcome smack down of Bush anti-environmentalism," Marvel said. "The BLM violated the law. It's that simple. That's what we have the courts for."

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