Range health bill returns for 2010 sessionWritten by Christy Hemken
Cheyenne – In its upcoming session the 2010 Wyoming Legislature will review a rangeland health assessment bill with the intent to assure the development and use of credible data in the assessment of Wyoming rangelands.
The bill would provide, through the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, a structured approach that fosters and assists in collaborative efforts to monitor rangelands involving, as applicable, landowners, lessees, permittees and federal and state land agencies.
SF007 - Rangeland Health Assessments – was drafted in response to Governor Freudenthal’s concerns on a 2009 bill he vetoed after it passed both the House and Senate. The bill’s crafters worked throughout 2009 to make changes they hope will make the proposal acceptable to the Governor this time around.
The 2009 meetings included representatives from across Wyoming, including agricultural organizations, conservation districts and state and federal agencies. The Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Interim Committee sponsors SF007.
“Last year the Governor had some concerns, and among them was that we were taking on the role of the BLM. I think the way the bill’s structured this time we’ve given it limited appropriations and it’s a coordination emphasis to get the various entities involved in a process to help the agencies gather meaningful information,” says Wyoming Farm Bureau Executive Director Ken Hamilton.
While last year’s bill had a narrow focus on rangeland monitoring, Leanne Stevenson of the Wyoming Department of Agriculture’s (WDA) Natural Resources and Policy Division says this year the bill has a broader “rangeland health” emphasis to incorporate everything that goes into grazing permit renewals including rangeland monitoring.
Stevenson says there are two goals with SF0007. “The short-term goal is doing what we can to ensure the BLM and permittees get the grazing permits renewed so they can keep grazing the land. The long-term goal is to ensure we have healthy rangelands in the state, and to create a program to ensure the rangeland assessments are done and that the state has long-term, sustainable monitoring and grazing.”
“In the past some of the challenges, especially with the BLM, is they’re so busy answering appeals and Freedom of Information Act requests that they’ve not been able to perform the monitoring needed to comply with the beginning of the NEPA process,” says Hamilton of the National Environmental Policy requirement for the renewal of grazing permits. “This monitoring is the first step before you can do any of the other things for renewal.”
“The state is not going to take over or pay for what is the job of the federal government in managing those federal lands,” notes Stevenson. She says the 2010 version also assures a voluntary program, but that everyone will have “skin in the game,” as the Governor put it.
The bill specifies that the federal land management agency has to be involved in the assessments, as well as the permittee. The bill is also open to letting others in to help, in instances where technical expertise or relationship building are needed.
“This bill aims to facilitate joint cooperative monitoring, where all the stakeholders build relationships together and do it jointly to avoid third-party monitoring,” says Stevenson, noting Western Watersheds’ data collection as an example of third-party monitoring.
Another aspect of the 2010 legislation calls for a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the state and the federal agencies involved. “It would be a four-way MOU between the Forest Service, BLM, the Office of State Lands and Investments and the WDA,” explains Stevenson. “The MOU brings all the entities to the table, ensuring we all have an investment in the program.”
“In these various appeals to the BLM we’re finding the issue of range quality and rangeland health is irrelevant,” says Hamilton. “It’s whether the agency has done the necessary steps in monitoring, and that’s very frustrating as an industry when the issue of rangeland health is irrelevant.”
He says SF007 is an effort to help federal agencies gather good information on which to base their decisions, which will in turn help ensure the long-term viability of grazing on public lands.
Although some allotments around the state would be high priority for the rangeland health assessments, Stevenson emphasizes permittees would participate on a voluntary basis.
Stevenson calls the requested $200,000 “miniscule” compared to the amount of work to be done, but the intent is to offer some grant programs and matching dollars. The funds, for example, might be granted to conservation districts that would like to help with the assessments. County commissioners may also apply.
Another $200,000 in the bill would be used in conjunction with the University of Wyoming to facilitate the educational and coordination component of the bill. The WDA would receive $20,000 to develop the rangeland health assessment program, bringing the bill’s total appropriation to $420,000.
So far Stevenson says the federal agencies have been in support of the bill. BLM’s State Range Lead Mark Goertel has been involved, as well as the BLM’s Marty Griffith and representatives from the Forest Service.
“I would hate to see producers and the state end up having to take this thing on, but at the end of the day when the BLM gets overturned by the courts all they do is go back and start over,” says Hamilton. “Meanwhile the producer’s faced with the challenge of whether or not he can go out on his grazing allotment. That’s where the big challenge is for us. How do we keep the federal government from shoving this down onto the states, while at the same time getting the necessary information so our producers can continue to graze out there?”
Those involved with the Framework Work Group of SF0007 are working on compiling an issues paper with facts and answers on the bill. It will be available immediately prior to the legislative session around the first of February.
“Given the support we had last year, and the concern legislators had about the impact on Wyoming’s ranching industry if we found a lot of producers couldn’t go out and graze, I think they’ll support it again this year,” says Hamilton. “I’m hopeful they will, and once we get into the session we’ll find out.”