Ranchers seeking to renew their grazing permits on federal lands or make improvements on their allotments have long been stymied by the National Environmental Policy Act, signed into law in 1970.
A proposed rule by the Trump administration, however, might lessen the load of what has become a lengthy and costly approval process to run livestock on public range.
NEPA requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impacts of proposed major federal actions as part of their decision-making. The process can impact a wide variety of projects, including the construction of roads, bridges, highways, and airports; water infrastructure; energy projects; and land, forest, and fishery management.
Over time, NEPA has become increasingly complex and time-consuming for federal agencies, project applicants, and Americans seeking permits or approvals from the federal government, according to the administration’s Council on Environmental Quality.
CEQ, which is proposing changes to NEPA, has found the average environmental impact statement is more than 600 pages and it takes federal agencies an average of 4 1/2 years to complete a NEPA review.
For ranchers conducting and environmental impact statement, that means they’re 4 1/2 years into what is a 10-year-term grazing permit, Tanner Beymer, associate director of the Public Lands Council, said in the latest "Beltway Beef" podcast.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous. There’s no reason it should take that long under any circumstance,” he said.
The proposed changes to NEPA are supposed to address that so people aren’t spending so much time putting together giant document — “which, realistically only serve as the basis for litigation later on down the road,” he said.
Litigation opportunities are not the intended or sole value of an EIS document, he told Capital Press.
“However, the size and massive scope of EIS documents provide a litany of opportunities for potential litigants to challenge federal decisions in court,” he said.
Page and time limits for NEPA documents under the proposed rule will help federal agencies focus their attention on the more direct effects of any proposed action, which in turn reduces opportunities to bring lawsuits, he said.
“Those limitations alone will not likely reduce the rate of judicial review on NEPA decisions but, coupled with some other provisions in the proposal, should help level the litigation playing field,” he said.
NEPA analyses are often challenged in court. While federal agencies prevail in many cases, litigation can unnecessarily delay and increase costs for projects, according to the CEQ.
The proposed rule would modernize and clarify regulations to facilitate more efficient, effective and timely NEPA reviews, according to the CEQ.
That’s hopeful news for ranchers like J.J. Goicoechea of Nevada, who gave examples of NEPA hindrances on the podcast.
In drought situations, ranchers need to haul water or develop additional water sources for livestock or wildlife. But those projects are often held up by NEPA for several years, and ranchers are forced to bring their livestock home, he said.
In another instance, he has a neighbor who’s been waiting nearly a decade for fencing to be approved on his allotment near a state highway. As a result, traffic collisions with cattle continue, even though the rancher tries to remove his livestock from the area and can’t really use that part of his operation.