Agencies Struggle With Federal Grazing Program

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, June 26, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management continue to struggle with the management of the federal grazing program, Bush administration officials told a Senate Energy Subcommittee Wednesday. With a combined backlog of more than 5,000 permits, the agencies again drew the ire of Western Republicans determined to provide relief to ranchers they say are dependent on federal public lands.

"The backlog of permits and applications is a very sorry state of affairs," said Senate Energy Chairman Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican.

The Forest Service appears to have less of a handle on its grazing program than the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and took much of the criticism by Republicans on the Energy Committee's Public Lands and Forests Subcommittee.

The agency, which is under the realm of the Agriculture Department, oversees some 9,500 permits for 8,800 allotments across some 90 million acres in 33 states - virtually all of these allotments are in Western states.

It has a backlog of some 3,666 grazing permits and is only completing work on about 150 to 200 permits a year.

"At its current rate of work, the Forest Service will require half a century to tackle the backlog it does know about," Domenici said. "This bureaucratic malaise is unacceptable. While Forest Service bureaucrats flounder in their own red tape, our ranchers and their livestock remain in frustrated limbo." ranchers

Ranchers pay far less to graze cattle on public lands than they do to graze on private lands, but supporters say there are ample conservation benefits. (Photo courtesy Conservation Beef)
The permit problem is not of this administration's making, said Mark Rey, Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It started in the mid-1990s as the result of court action that required the agencies to do analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) at the time of grazing permit renewals, Rey explained. NEPA requires the Forest Service and the BLM to evaluate the environmental effects of livestock grazing on public land before authorizing this activity.

The backlog problem has "expanded in scope and intensity faster than our efforts to address it," Rey said.

Congress passed legislation to safeguard ranchers from permit delays that were the responsibility of the Forest Service or the BLM and set a deadline for the agencies to complete this compliance is 2010.

Rey says the Forest Service will not be able to meet this deadline without increased resources or streamlining of the procedures the agency uses to comply with NEPA.

"My preference would be to do some of both," Rey told the subcommittee. "We are expending resources on relatively straightforward permit renewals where nothing is changing,"

Compared to the Forest Service, the BLM appears to be doing a much better job managing its grazing permits. The BLM manages more than 18,000 grazing permits and leases on more than 160 million acres of public land, and has reduced its permit backlog by 85 percent over the last three years.

The combination of completing 10 year land use plans and the new NEPA requirement came together to create a huge backlog, said Interior Department Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Rebecca Watson. As a result in 1999 and 2000, Watson said, some 7,200 BLM grazing permits expired.

Typically, Watson explained, about 1,500 permits are up for renewal each year. The agency should be caught up with its backlog by fiscal year 2008, Watson told the subcommittee and is laying the groundwork to ensure that its process is more efficient.

Easier compliance with NEPA would be a good start, Watson said.

"We are doing a lot of paperwork here," Watson said.

In March the BLM put out an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that proposes "streamlining" the administrative appeals process related to grazing decisions and other measures the administration says will help keep ranchers on the land. grazing

Senate Republicans believe the federal government's mismanagement of grazing permits is making life difficult for ranchers. (Photo courtesy Forest Guardians)
But senators at the hearing criticized the BLM for not reaching out to the ranching community during its drafting of its new rules and urged both agencies to provide more consistency to ranchers.

"If they know there is a rule and guideline to follow they can work within those guidelines," said Senator Conrad Burns, a Montana Republican. "But they have got to be consistent in the long term because they can not change their plans in a year's time."

"There must be more local input," added Senator Craig Thomas, a Wyoming Republican.

Burns said the agencies must get their staffers out of their offices and onto the land to help ranchers with improved management and conservation techniques - and must stop looking for more funding from Congress.

"Every time I have a little meeting you always ask for more resources, more money and it still does not happen," Burns said. "I do not see these people working."

Several senators outlined concern that that the BLM or the Forest Service might reduce the number of animals permitted for grazing - known as animal unit months (AUMs). An AUM is defined as the amount of forage needed to sustain one cow and her calf, one horse, or five sheep or goats for a month.

"The reduction of AUMS destroys the economic viability of the operating unit that results in the fragmentation of the very land we are concerned about," said Senator Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican and chair of the Public Lands and Forests Subcommittee.

"But what always appears to be a solution to a grazing problem in the West is you just reduce numbers of livestock grazing," Craig said.

The Idaho Senator said that the number of AUMs have been slashed to such an extent over the past few decades that further reduction makes no sense. From 1953 to 2003 the BLM has reduced number of AUMs by 110 percent, he said, and from 1983 to 2003 Forest Service reduced AUMs by 27 percent.

The Bush administration says the Forest Service currently permits for some 9.9 million AUMs, with the BLM adding another eight million AUMs on land it oversees.

Ranchers who use federal land must have a privately owned "base camp" nearby - Craig contends that reducing AUMs destroys "the margin of operational viability" and forces landowners to sell their private stake, often to developers.

This eliminates the conservation and management benefits of grazing, Craig said, which include keeping land from development, reducing the threat of fire and fending off invasive species.

But conservationists say the picture painted by supporters of grazing on pubic lands does not match with the reality. grazing2

Grazing has left environmental damage on some Western public lands, including this streambank in Arizona's Black Canyon Creek. (Photo courtesy Public Lands Grazing Activists)
"This is a dying industry and these are bogus arguments," said Martin Taylor, conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), based in Arizona.

The "base camp" for ranchers to use public lands only has to be 10 acres under Forest Service guidelines and for BLM lands, qualifying property can be held as water rights, Taylor said.

"It is economic nonsense to say that ranchers go out of business there will be a rash of subdivisions," Taylor told ENS.

Conservationists contend that ranchers do not have an inherent right to use public lands, and say the current system often encourages overgrazing and provides a large subsidy to a relatively small group.

Only three percent of U.S. livestock producers have federal grazing permits and an October 2002 study by the CBD found that the minimum cost to U.S. taxpayers of the federal grazing on public lands is $128 million. But this number could be as high as $1 billion, CBD determined, because of indirect costs from resource damage and subsidies.

This year the federal government reduced the cost to ranchers for grazing on public lands from $1.43 per AUM to $1.35 per AUM because of falling beef cattle prices.

Even so, the panel bristled at the suggestion by conservationists that non ranchers be allowed to purchase grazing permits with the aim of permanently retiring that allotment.

There may be instances in specific areas where that may be a good idea, Rey said, but as a broad policy "it is one of the stupidest ideas I have ever heard."

"It is a stupid idea," Watson agreed. "Removing public land grazers from the land results in negative impacts. It results in a subdivision that is there forever. People criticize mines, timber, grazing but those are temporary uses. A subdivision lasts forever, a Walmart is there for a long time.'

Taylor says there is a growing number of ranchers lobbying for a buyout program and adds he is puzzled by such strong resistance to the concept.

"I do not know why these senators want to keep propping up this industry," he said. "Why not support the buyout? We have tremendous political support for it, across the spectrum."