Grazing bill’s passage by Senate committee raises optimism

John O'Connell/Capital Press Cattle graize on Bureau of Land Management property near Pocatello, Idaho. Experts believe drought conditions and fire damage to public lands will drive up lease rates on private pasture next season.

The livestock industry is optimistic that a bill addressing a backlog of required environmental reviews on federal grazing allotments will become law in 2014, following its recent passage by a Senate committee.

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources passed the Grazing Improvement Act of 2013, S258, on Nov. 21. The same committee failed to even mark up the bill last year.

The next step in the process would be consideration by the full Senate. A companion bill introduced by Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, passed the House Committee on Natural Resources earlier this year, with bipartisan support.

“I’m certainly more hopeful — by a lot,” said Wally Butler, an Idaho rangeland consultant and international president of the Society for Range Management. “The Senate has always been the difficult side.”

Efforts to pass the bill have spanned four years and two Congresses. Current law prohibits grazing on allotments when leases expire before National Environmental Policy Act reviews are completed. For more than a decade, the livestock industry’s recourse for tardy NEPA reviews has been to add language into appropriations bills authorizing one-year lease renewals under identical terms.

Under the Senate bill, the federal government would have authority to renew leases for at least 10 years, and as long as 20 years, pending completion of NEPA reviews.

Peter Orwick, executive director of the American Sheep Industry Association, said the bill would provide certainty and eliminate risk for ranchers.

“No. 1, it allows the ranchers and their banks to have a more secure situation that the annual process to get NEPA done isn’t going to shut down the ranch,” Orwick said.

The bill also categorically excludes from NEPA reviews allotments in which there’s evidence showing range land is in excellent health.

“That has the potential to be a big help,” said Butler, who contracts with ranches to monitor grazing land health.

Dustin Van Liew, executive director of the Public Lands Council, said the Bureau of Land Management now has about 4,000 NEPA allotment reviews backlogged, and the U.S. Forest Service has another 2,000 that are behind schedule. He said many reviews are two to five years behind — some have been delayed even longer in cases involving litigation.

He believes the bill would prevent lawsuits alleging the government’s failure to comply with NEPA procedural issues.

“We find it to be a big step in the Senate,” Van Liew said. “It’s the first time this committee in the Senate has taken up and passed grazing legislation in quite a while.”

Van Liew is troubled, however, by a pilot program added to the Senate bill, allowing for voluntary buyouts of up to 25 allotments per year in Oregon and New Mexico. The pilot program has no listed expiration date, and Van Liew argues it wouldn’t be market-based because outside organizations would likely offer their own financial incentives to entice ranchers.

Nonetheless, Van Liew said his organization supports the underlying bill and is optimistic it will succeed in stripping out the pilot program language.

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