National perspective - Agriculture industry looks at national issuesWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, attended the annual Public Lands Council (PLC) and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NBCA) fly-in that took place at the end of March in Washington, D.C., addressing access and use of public lands. Industry leaders met with representatives from agencies such as Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and Forest Service (FS).
Concerning agency meetings, “There are two things we are watching very closely,” Magagna notes.
Sage grouse plans
Federal land management agencies have been in the process of updating their resource management plans (RMPs), and plan amendments for the Greater sage grouse are due to be released in August, keeping western ag producers attentive to possible effects. These plan amendments are commonly known across the West as the sage grouse nine plan amendments.
“Livestock grazing is not considered a primary threat to sage grouse, but there are some things that we can do with grazing to enhance habitat with livestock,” he explains.
Magagna further adds that, at this point, the Lander RMP is the only updated plan that has been approved and released.
“The Lander RMP is not perfect, but we can work with it,” he says, noting that the nine plan’s impact remains to be seen.
The second issue PLC is concerned about is BLM’s new grazing handbook, which is also expected to be released later this year.
“BLM is currently in the process of revising its grazing handbook, and we are concerned about preference rights,” states Magagna.
Currently, producers maintain a certain preference for grazing a given number of animal unit months (AUM), regardless of how the producer may have used them in previous seasons.
“BLM has been discussing criteria that would let them reduce preference of AUMs that are not being used,” he explains.
Many producers have purchased their grazing rights from previous preference holders.
“Any reduction represents a loss of economic value,” he comments.
AUMs may be suspended due to lower carrying capacity or other land uses.
“BLM is proposing to have the discretion to ‘wipe these away’ if they feel that they are not reasonably likely to be made active in the foreseeable future,” adds Magagna.
Because the handbook is not considered a rule, revisions will not be made available to the public for comments, but producers could be impacted by proposed modifications.
“We will stay tuned to those changes and be strong in resisting them,” he states.
In other meetings, PLC addressed the FS, bringing up concerns about the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Federal agencies such as FS must submit detailed environmental impact statements, reviewing the possible environmental affects of activities allowed on public land prior to taking action according to NEPA.
“We had some discussions about moving more expeditiously on NEPA permits to make them more available for producers experiencing temporary or permanent grazing losses,” comments Magagna.
Active land takes precedence for NEPA evaluations, leaving vacant allotments unevaluated for use.
“Not unexpectedly, the agency’s response is to point to reduced budget and lack of resources,” he says.
Provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act passed last December authorize the FS to renew permits using categorical exclusions, which PLC believes could free up resources to prioritize vacant permits. This would, in turn, make those lands available in a timely manner for producers seeking alternate grazing locations.
“FS and BLM are reluctant to use categorical exclusions because of the threat of litigation by Western Watersheds Project and other environmental groups,” he continues.
Although some agencies allow it, FS does not allow grazing by producers who do not own the livestock.
“Particularly after the drought in a good year with good grass, producers may have available pasture to bring in some extra livestock, but it is difficult if some of their year-round grazing is on FS land,” he says. “We would like to see some changes on that subject.”
Another important topic covered in Washington was the new public relations campaign that the PLC agreed on during their annual meeting last fall.
“We probably never realized how important it really was,” Magagna comments.
He is encouraged by the progress that teams are making on the project, identifying a message and conducting interviews to determine what resonates with decision makers, so that an effective campaign can be built.
Magagna notes that many other topics were discussed in Washington, D.C.
“We dealt with all of the usual issues, and they were all really good meetings,” he says.