Appropriations bill contains grazing and bighorn sheep prioritiesWritten by Christy Martinez
The Public Lands Council (PLC) is involved in litigation and legislation on behalf of the livestock grazing industry, and at the mid-December Wyoming Stock Growers Winter Roundup, PLC Executive Director Dustin Van Liew updated members on current federal issues, including the grazing bill, which was introduced by Senator John Barrasso.
“This bill contains multiple things that will be very helpful for the stabilization of our industry, and it will codify the rider language we have placed in the appropriations bill annually, which will allow the secretaries of agriculture and interior the flexibility to renew grazing permits with no major changes in light of the NEPA backlog, which will not be taken care of anytime soon, especially in light of agency budgets,” explained Van Liew.
Van Liew said the bill offers stability and flexibility and efficiencies to the agencies, which would no longer rely on the continuous appropriations process.
“The bill also extends grazing permits from 10 to 20 years and applies the Administrative Procedures Act’s formal adjudication procedures for a hearing on the record with the Forest Service,” he noted. “Currently the Forest Service handles appeals in-house, with no third party or hearing to ask questions or find out information on decisions they’ve made.”
Finally, Van Liew said former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, in his 1994 rangeland reform regulations, removed the automatic stay when grazing permits are appealed.
“This legislation puts the stay back in, and in statute as opposed to regulations, so if a grazing decision is appealed it’s automatically stayed and it’s not an emergency situation, and that allows stability on permits,” he explained.
Van Liew said PLC is working with the U.S. House to introduce companion legislation, and they are also talking about adding the BLM’s trailing issue to the House version of the bill, as well as the Senate.
“A district court decision in Idaho challenged trailing permits on the need for NEPA every time a trailing or crossing permit is issued. The district court decision was taken by folks at the BLM office in D.C. to mean that’s how they need to manage trailing and crossing permits across the West,” he explained. “The jurisdiction of district courts doesn’t go very far, and it certainly doesn’t cover the whole western United States.”
In response, Van Liew said PLC has worked with Congress for a three-year time-out on the need for NEPA on the permits.
Another piece of legislation that was introduced is H.R. 1581, the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act.
“This bill is championed by Majority Whip McCarthy of California, and it’s a priority for leadership,” said Van Liew. “The bill says Congress has the sole authority to designate wilderness, and it has a decision to make regarding Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) and inventoried roadless areas. They have been managed as de facto wilderness, and Congress needs to decide on them once and for all. This legislation starts that process.”
Van Liew said both the BLM and Forest Service have outlined millions of acres that are not suitable for wilderness designation.
“The BLM recommended 6.72 million of WSAs and the Forest Service recommended 36.1 million acres of inventoried roadless areas as not suitable. This bill removes those and makes that Congressional decision, mandating they be managed for multiple uses and bars them from being designated as wilderness areas.”
Van Liew said he believes the House can move the legislation, and its leadership supports it, but he noted the Senate is not likely to pass it.
“But, with these bills we need to set the bar in the House and hope in a future Congressional session there will be a more friendly Congress and Senate,” he stated.
“Another piece that’s moving and on which we are making progress is Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) reform,” he continued. “There were two bills introduced in the House and Senate by your congressional delegation, which is the great delegation for our industry and a great help on Capitol Hill.”
Van Liew explained the Government Litigation Savings Act closes the loophole that radical special interests have exploited that allows them to recoup their attorneys fees.
“These are your tax dollars and coming out of agencies’ budgets, so it’s a downward spiral,” he said. “The agencies are sitting at their desks going over process lawsuits and losing portions of their budgets to the radical special interest groups. The bill has moved through subcommittee markup in the House and was passed out of the full judiciary committee, and we have word they’re looking at springtime to move the legislation on the House floor and pass it to set the bar.”
He said it’s not likely the Democrat-controlled Senate will pass it as written, but he’d like to at least see the Senate pass reporting language so the federal government has to report on the fees that are paid.
Van Liew said it’s Congress’s job to pass 12 appropriations bills annually to fund the federal government.
“We’re now two months into this fiscal year and we’ve passed three of the 12. The ag appropriations bill was included in the first three that passed, which included the lack of the horse processing provision that prevented horse slaughter,” he said.
Of the nine appropriations bills that are left, one of them is for the Department of the Interior.
“It’s important for our industry, and it’s the one on which we’ve done the most work,” said Van Liew. “It looked liked they’d move those nine bills as a megabus bill, but Congress likes to stay up until Christmas Eve. Senate Majority Leader Reed has held it hostage to get Republicans in the House to cave on removing the Keystone Pipeline and pass the Payroll Tax Deduction Extension Bill.”
As a result, the House couldn’t adjourn as they were planning, and Van Liew expected another short-term continuing resolution in the week preceding Christmas.
“They are committed, it seems, to pass the appropriations bill, once they figure out something on the Payroll Tax Bill,” he stated. “That’s important, because we’ve been operating under Nancy Pelosi’s appropriations bill for the last two years and we can’t implement fixes or stops or hold the administration because we use the appropriations bills to attach legislative language to put those limits on the administration.”
Van Liew said there are two priorities for the appropriations bill – first and foremost, the grazing rider, which he says has, from all indications, bipartisan support.
The second one is the bighorn sheep issue.
“We are opposed to the Payette decision in Idaho, and we see the Forest Service taking that decision across the West, not by choice but by litigation pressure,” said Van Liew of a court decision that moved 70 percent of sheep from the Payette National Forest. “If that happened across the West, 25 percent of domestic sheep industry would be wiped out. We’ve worked with the chairman of the Interior Subcommittee on Appropriations to include language to block federal agencies for five years from making any decisions for the management of bighorn sheep that negatively affect livestock grazing, and indications are that language will be included in the final language.”