The U.S. Senate has overwhelming passed a massive public lands package containing more than 100 individual provisions, many of which have lingered in Congress for years and affect ranchers’ ability to graze their livestock.
The Natural Resources Management Act, S. 47, addresses a wide range of local and regional priorities regarding land and water management.
“It really is sort of a catch-all for local, parochial land issues dating back to 2014” since the last big lands bill was passed, Ethan Lane, Public Land Council and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association senior executive director of federal lands, said.
Lumping the provisions together is the only way to get it done, since all need to be resolved by an act of Congress, he said.
There are a lot of good things in the package that advance policy priorities for ranchers, such as wilderness boundary adjustments to provide stability to ranchers so they can continue to operate and resolutions to longstanding land and ownership disputes, he said.
The package also contains a section to shed light on payments made through the Equal Access to Justice Act, which provides attorneys’ fees to people who prevail in court against the federal government. It gives activists a no-cost way to sue the government and harm ranchers by challenging decisions by federal land-management agencies, he said.
“We have been fighting against EAJA for a decade at least,” he said.
That fight has fallen short in at least the last three Congresses. The Senate lands package finally creates a data base of all EAJA payments open to the public and finally sheds light on what he called a “giveaway program to radical groups.”
“That’s huge. That’s a big deal,” he said.
But there are also some tradeoffs for ranchers, the biggest of which is permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a good program that has veered off course of its original intent, he said.
Revenue for the fund is derived from offshore oil and gas leasing and is intended to help preserve, develop and ensure access to outdoor recreation.
It’s supposed to go to conservation, including state grants for such things as large parks and greenbelts. But it’s largely become a federal land-acquisition fund. Of the $18 billion spent on the program since 1965, about 65 percent has been used for federal land acquisition and only 25 percent for state grants, he said.
The program is depriving communities of revenue and just gobbling up land for the federal government, which already has trouble managing the 650 million acres it owns, he said.
“A lot of times these funds go to putting ranchers out of business” and locking the gates on public lands, he said.
Permanent reauthorization essentially takes Congress out of the equation on how the funds are spent, he said.
Some ranchers will also be affected by the designation of additional wilderness areas. But some were already wilderness study areas, and other study areas would be released, he said.
PLC and NCBA never like to see wilderness areas created; there’s already enough wilderness. But compromise doesn’t come without trade-offs, he said.
The lands bill package passed 92-8 and is headed to the House.