Legislative committee assesses study on management of federal landsWritten by Saige Albert
Riverton – Wyomingites are well aware that one of the biggest topics addressed during the recent race for Wyoming’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives is the topic of federal lands and their ownership and management.
The Select Committee on Federal Natural Resources Management has been exploring that issue through a study that was mandated several years ago by Senate File 56 in 2014.
Committee Chairman Sen. Eli Bebout said that the committee was charged to develop and introduce legislative polices related to those actions, which led to a study on federal land management.
Senate File 56 asked the Committee to commission a study and provide a report addressing management of public lands.
“What it does not say is that we’re going to privatize the public lands or limit access to that. There’s been a lot of discussion on this, and I wanted to make it very clear that the law was not intended – and was never intended – to sell or privatize lands,” Bebout emphasized. “It authorizes, ‘the development of a proposed plan for administration of management of those lands under the principles of multiple use and sustained yields.’”
The uses are legislatively mandated to include maintenance of public access for hunting, fishing and recreation, subject to closure of lands for public safety or environmental sensitivity.
The next steps of the study fell to the Office of State Lands and Investments (OSLI), who put out a Request for Proposal and commissioned the study, awarding the project to Y2 Consultants of Jackson.
OSLI Director Bridget Hill said, “I viewed my role as making sure our consultants followed the parameters set by the Legislature. I didn’t alter the substance of the study, and I went in with an unbiased view of what they were going to turn up.”
Brenda Younkin and Abigail Moore spent nearly a year compiling findings, accumulating data ranging from budgets to management actions, which was summarized in a final report.
“When we started this process, we wanted to tie it very closely to the requirements of the Legislature,” Younkin said. “We started with who, what, where, why, when and how, but we really want to focus on why and how right now.”
As a starting point, Y2 Consultants looked at why the state would be interested in management of federal lands.
Younkin said, “We really wanted to get our minds around why, under sustained and multiple use context, we would want to really impact the management of federal lands.”
“There were only two reasons – one is financial,” she continued. “The other is to influence the land management.”
She elaborated, noting that, as one of the largest oil and gas producers in the state, and significant amount of money is at stake.
“Influencing the management is also very important,” Younkin said. “In a state that is 48 percent federal land, that matters. It makes a difference for recreation, our way of life and our businesses.”
Y2 Consultants looked at current management within their study.
“OSLI is looking at cash for kids,” she simplified. “Forest Service (FS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) really have to manage the laws for their framework, and they’re trying to manage a political consideration. How much access is appropriate? Where are these uses appropriate? OSLI doesn’t have that burden.”
Younkin also noted that an additional point of interest is that federal land management does not correlate revenue and expenses.
“Just because they created $2 million from the land does not mean that $2 million is spent on the same landscape,” she explained. “OSLI has a fiduciary obligation to generate revenue for its beneficiaries.”
In looking at budgets, Y2 Consultants found it very difficult to quantify exactly what is spend on management of federal lands.
“Federal agencies and federal lands are managed across boundaries that don’t align with our state boundaries,” Younkin said, explaining, for example, that Wyoming lies within two regions of the Forest Service, and of the five forests in Wyoming, three cross state lines.
“When we look at management of federal lands, we have options to start the process,” Younkin said. “When we look at the question of can the transfer of management – as a whole scale transfer of all federal lands – be completed, ultimately, our findings were that it is unlikely.”
Among reasons for the unlikelihood of such an action, Younkin cited scale and cost.
“That is such a large scale to consider all at one time,” she said.
There are pilot programs that would be an example of a possible way to cooperatively manage lands.
“We found an example,” Younkin said. “There is no litigation and no press because everyone is getting along. That example is a community near Webberville, Calif.”
The partnership between BLM, FS and the community developed a cooperative agreement to manage private lands.
“By all accounts, it is working well,” Younkin explained. “The community is able to get economic benefits, and BLM and FS are able to make their requirements.”
“These mechanisms exist,” Younkin said. “They are not well utilized, and they are not well known.”
However, she also emphasizes that with changing landscapes for regulation, one important piece in developing partnerships is having clearly written agreements that allow cooperation for management of federal lands.
She also added that natural resource management or land use plans for counties are also important.
“As long as the plan does not violate federal law, those plans are required to be considered,” Younkin explained.
Committee member Tim Stubson said, “We’ve talked a lot about pilot programs, and it may be a good option for the state.”
Sen. Larry Hicks explained that management partnerships do exist within the state, particularly in looking at land management and environmental analyses, among other things, adding, “Counties and conservation districts are working cooperatively.”
“My experience is, we have to have a partnership,” Hicks continued. “All the tools they provide to us don’t mean anything if we don’t have a federal partner on the other side of the desk who is willing to implement and allow those partnerships to work.”
The presence of such a partner varies from office to office, based on the attitudes of local personnel.
“In many cases, we’ve tried, and we’re willing to partner, but sometimes we don’t have someone to work with on the other side,” Hicks commented.
Bebout asked for other ideas from Y2 Consultants, saying, “We appreciate this recommendation, but we’ve tried. How do we get to multiple use and sustained yield? Do you see any other path which we might take?”
Younkin noted that other states have looked at transfer of title, which is another opportunity, noting that it is challenging.
“The state of Wyoming and people in this room will be successful in influencing management because of those partnerships we currently have that can influence this process now,” Younkin commented. “Perseverance is going to be necessary today.”
After much discussion, the Committee voted to advance a proposed constitutional amendment that would specify how federal land would be managed if it were transferred to Wyoming. Read more about the amendment next week.
GAO report looks at unauthorized grazing on federal landsWritten by Saige Albert
Washington, D.C. – A 69-page report released on July 7 by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) looked at the “frequency and extent of unauthorized grazing on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service lands (USFS)” over the last five years. The report found 1,500 recorded incidents of unauthorized grazing in the past five years on federal lands.
The report was compiled at the direction of Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources.
Inside the report
The GAO report said, “The frequency and extent of unauthorized grazing on BLM and USFS lands are largely unknown because, according to agency officials, the agencies prefer to handle most incidents informally, such as with a telephone call, and do not record them.”
The report noted that informal handling of trespassing incidents is common because “in part, they do not consider it a priority.”
However, GAO also comments that the practice of handling trespass informally is not provided for in agency regulations, and regulations do not provide flexibility to resolve incidents without a written notice.
Additionally, the report addressed “perceived lost revenue that would otherwise be incurred through these unreported ‘incidents,’ and calls out the USFS penalty formula as insufficient to act as a true deterrent,” according to the Public Lands Council.
In their summary, GAO says that several solutions are possible, included amending regulations, establishing new procedures or changing their practices to comply with the existing regulations.
GAO made six recommendations in their report, which agencies generally agreed with.
The first recommendation was to amend regulations on unauthorized grazing use to establish procedures for information resolution of violations or to follow existing regulations by sending a notice for each potential violation.
Secondly, “To improve the effectiveness of BLM’s efforts to track and deter unauthorized grazing, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of BLM to record all incidents of unauthorized grazing, including those resolved informally,” says the report.
GAO also noted that the agency’s handbook, Unauthorized Grazing Use, should be revised to coincide with regulations.
Related to USFS, GAO recommended amending regulations or direction to follow existing regulations related to unauthorized grazing.
Secondly, all USFS incidents of unauthorized grazing should be recorded, even those resolved informally.
Finally, GAO recommended, “To improve the effectiveness of the Forest Service’s efforts to track and deter unauthorized grazing, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Forest Service to adopt an unauthorized grazing penalty structure that is based, similar to BLM’s, on the current commercial value of forage.”
Incidence of trespass
Dick Loper of the Wyoming State Grazing Board commented, “Yes, we have ranchers in Wyoming who have been trespassed by BLM and USFS. It’s not a common thing, but it does happen more often than reported by BLM.”
While trespass happens on federal lands in Wyoming, Loper said that most trespass incidents are not willful trespass.
“Some trespasses are ‘willful’ because ranchers know BLM isn’t very good about counting cow numbers, and they aren’t out on the range to check things like they used to be,” Loper said, adding, “Most trespass cases are ‘unauthorized location’ issues, not ‘more numbers of livestock on the BLM than are authorized on the permit’ issues.”
Loper further continued that many incidents of trespass occur when livestock move out of the areas that they are supposed to be as a result of the public leaving gates open.
“It is technically a trespass, but this type of trespass is not the direct fault of the rancher,” he said. “We appreciate when BLM recognizes that it isn’t the rancher’s fault and calls the rancher to request they get livestock back where they belong.”
“As a result of this report, the BLM and USFS will likely start to do a better job of documenting situations of livestock ‘trespass’ in the files,” Loper said. “Permittees should insist that when someone receives a notice of trespass in the future, the documents and file information on the situation contain the reasons for the trespass. For instance, if the trespass was caused by gates left open by hunters/recreationists or ‘unknown parties,’ permittees should insist that those reasons which were not the fault of the permittee be contained in the file.”
He also noted that the critical attitude of GAO toward informal resolution of trespass situations means likely changes for producers.
Loper continues, “The federal agencies may not use this ‘informal’ process as much as they currently do in the future so it is good business to be more vigilant as to the location of livestock on federal lands in the future.”
Public Lands Council highlights challenges with federal land regulationsWritten by Saige Albert
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Endangered Species Act (ESA) and others provide constant challenges for public lands ranchers, says Public Lands Council (PLC) Executive Director Ethan Lane, who adds that these tools require ranchers to consider far beyond the score of their operation in implementing management actions of public land.
“Imagine that we’re watching a football game,” he says. “The game is going really badly, so we want to switch to something else, but what if we can’t change the channel? What if we have to identify, evaluate and dismiss every single possibility for the impacts to our surrounding before we push that button?”
Lane adds that, if people watching TV had to consider impacts like the noise differential of the football game compared to other shows, the consumption of snacks or their neighbor watching the game through their window prior to making a decision to change the channel, they would like call the action ridiculous or crazy.
“Unfortunately, this is the reality for ranchers who have to deal with NEPA on a regular basis,” he says.
Lane continues, “Because of NEPA, grass management practices that are accepted around the world must be looked at on a case-by-case basis – and sometimes, it even has to start with an analysis of the cattle program.”
If the evaluation goes well, it has to again be evaluated, and Lane says, “The evaluation of the evaluation may also need approval.”
The resulting process is long, drawn-out and often manipulated by opponents of grazing.
“And NEPA isn’t the only challenge standing in the way of public lands ranchers,” he adds.
ESA also creates problems for ranchers around the West.
“ESA has become a favorite weapon among citizen groups,” Lane says. “These groups file hundreds of low-bar, procedural lawsuits demanding that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) make listing determinations on a species or subspecies, many of which are indistinguishable.”
Those species on the ESA have less than a two percent recovery rate, and Lane emphasizes that no resources are being channeled toward recovery efforts.
He continues that the Center for Biological Diversity and Wild Earth Guardians praise the settlements that are reached behind closed doors with FWS.
“The listing process is broken, and the agency is battered by years of political meddling,” Land comments. “Environmental groups have found a strategy that is almost flawless. They overwhelm the agencies, and the agencies are left to wade through listings.”
A never-ending stream of critical habitat, optimal conditions, population counts, voluntary conservation efforts and more roll through federal offices to avoid threat of listing species under the ESA.
“The problem with all of this – unless the goal is to shut down multiple use, is a web of conflicting, one-size-fits-all management decisions with awful results,” he adds. “More and more we are seeing years of scientific evaluation in pasture rotation, timing, water resource protection, residual matter, invasive species control and more get thrown out the window for a single species that is generating contention.”
Sage grouse example
As a recent example, Lane looks inside the sage grouse issue.
“In the case of the Greater sage grouse, the species was found to be not warranted for listing after recent reports showed a 63 percent rebound in population over the past two years,” he says. “That is great, but along with it came an almost indecipherable list of resource management plans (RMPs) and land use plan amendments that lock in the restrictions and avoid the bad press of a listing.”
For example, restrictions on habitat prove to be problematic for a variety of reasons, according to Lane.
“After all the evaluation work to determine whether to turn off the football game, it’s like telling us that we can’t change the channel because the Arizona Cardinals are a species of greater conservation concern,” he says, continuing his metaphor from earlier. “We have to watch the game after all.”
Despite that sage grouse is not listed, Lane notes that ranchers are forced to comply with restrictions in their full force.
Benefits of ranchers
On public lands, Lane continues that ranchers provide important management at low cost to the federal government.
“It costs the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) five dollars to manage every acre of un-grazed land,” he says. “Place a rancher on the land, and the cost drops to two dollars per acre.”
Across the 250 million acres in the West, the federal government saves $750 million annually as a result of livestock grazers.
“In round numbers, BLM would need a 60 percent budget increase to manage the land without grazing,” Lane comments. “Without these families, lands would fall into disrepair, be consumed by invasive species and lose the value we maintain.”
From the agencies
Lane further emphasizes that even the federal agencies agree that grazing is beneficial.
“BLM says that well-managed grazing provides numerous environmental benefits and supports healthy watersheds, carbon sequestration, recreational opportunities and wildlife habitat,” he says. “The U.S. Forest Service says grazing can replicate natural processes and keep lands healthy.”
He adds that USDA agrees proper grazing is the most ecologically sustainable benefit from agriculture.
“Despite all that praise for grazing, the federal government can sometimes be its own worst enemy,” Lane says.
Lane spoke during the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Cattle Industry Convention and Trade Show, held in late January in San Diego, Calif.
Legislators hear report on implementation of management plans across WyoWritten by Saige Albert
Casper – With the signing of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service land use plans in late September, the agencies are now focused on implementation, and Wyoming legislators looked at successes behind implementation of similar plans currently in place, including the Lander Resource Management Plan (RMP) and Casper RMP.
During a Sept. 29 meeting of the Wyoming Legislature's Select Federal Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Tim Stubson, Casper legislator and chairman of the committee, said, “We have heard a lot of discussion. We have a good model, with implementation out of the Casper office. We want insight from people who have gone through implementation.”
When the Greater sage grouse was determined not warranted for listing under the Endangered Species Act, revisions for the Buffalo and Big Horn Basin field offices, as well as amendments for the Casper, Green River, Kemmerer, Newcastle, Pinedale and Rawlins RMPs, were also released.
“It is important to note that Lander completed their RMP back in June 2014, and the Record of Decision (ROD) provides a similar balance for Greater sage grouse conservation. Since that time, our staff has been coordinating with cooperating agencies to initiate implementation,” said Buddy Green, BLM state director for resources. “We look forward to working with our state and local partners as we enter into the implementation realms.”
Green further asserted that implementation of conservation plans is not new for Wyoming’s state and federal agencies and private citizens.
“We have analyzed the resources in the department,” he said. “We strove to address the demand in energy development and in habitat. To that end, BLM Wyoming-approved plans are consistent with the core area strategy and Executive Order.”
The measures implemented in core areas are largely familiar, Green continued, including a limit of five percent disturbance in core area habitat, with one disturbance per square mile, no surface occupancy within 0.6 miles of an occupied lek and no road within 1.9 miles of an occupied lek, among others.
With a focus on working with cooperating agencies, Stubson asked Green to clarify what working together looks like on a practical level.
“We plan to continue with our establishing working relationships with all of our stakeholders, counties and states, as we have for some time,” Green noted.
However, he also continued that, as a plan with a national implementation scope, there is a focus on consistency while also recognizing existing relationships.
“Here in Wyoming, we are fortunate that we have that structure in place,” he commented, mentioning the Governor’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team and the Greater Sage Grouse Implementation Working Group. “These groups are Wyoming-specific, and frankly, a lot of other states are working toward that format for their states.”
With representation from state agencies, statewide conservation and agriculture organizations and local working groups, Green noted that public comment and input has been positive.
A county perspective
In Fremont County, where the Lander RMP has been approved and implementation has been in place for several years, County Commissioner Doug Thompson noted that continued involvement is important.
“We have dealt with the Lander RMP for what seems like eons,” Thompson said. “It has been signed, and as a local government representative, we have continued to engage.”
A provision in the RMP provides for implementation with continued involvement from cooperating agencies, and Thompson noted he has followed up on those obligations. However, continued engagement of stakeholders can be challenging to achieve.
“We have created coalitions of conservation groups and producers to clarify various gray areas in the plan,” he continued. “We are trying, on a local level, to engage, clarify what the plans mean and work cooperatively to make sure we are all playing by the same set of rules.”
With over 1.5 years of implementation thus far, Thompson also noted that they are focusing on other species, including mule deer, antelope and others.
“One of the messages I try to preach is flexibility in implementation,” Thompson noted.
He further mentioned that implementation includes focusing on historic trails, wildlife needs, livestock use and other resource concerns.
“Flexibility will be a big part in implementation of the strategy,” he said.
Natrona County Commissioner Forrest Chadwick mentioned that he spent time visiting with ranchers, oil and gas producers and BLM personnel on the implementation of the Casper RMP, which was signed in 2007, and the general consensus he was able to glean from their remarks is that successes are being seen.
“At the BLM level, I hear that there are very few problems and conflicts,” Chadwick explained. “Conflicts are almost non-existent.”
He also noted that working relationships differ based on the personalities and field offices involved, but the vast majority of interactions between BLM and ranchers have been positive.
“Oil and gas people are still concerned about the 12-plus months is takes to get an Application for Permit to Drill (APD), but they also understand the sage grouse issue and the importance of it,” Chadwick added. “They are willing to work with it.”
In continuing to implement the latest RODs, Green also noted that staffing changes at BLM have resulted in other challenges.
“Since the beginning of fiscal year 2015, which was Oct. 1, 2014, we have had 39 employees around the state retire,” he commented. “Specifically, we have two-thirds of the district manager positions vacant, filled by acting district managers right now.”
“We are working diligently to fill those gaps,” Green added. “I’m comfortable with the remaining employees, and there will be a large remnant of folks in the office to create continuity there. I think we will have consistency, but it will take some work.”
As implementation moves forward, all parties agreed that continuing to work together will be paramount.
Thompson concluded, “I think we have good communication between state and local government.”
Howard offers suggestions for dealing with federal land management agenciesWritten by Saige Albert
When dealing with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Elizabeth Howard notes that litigation should be a last resort, though working together may be frustrating.
“Not to say that litigation isn’t an important sword that we want to be able to wield at the right time, but there are a lot of strategies to use before we get to that point,” she says.
Howard, an attorney who devotes the majority of her time to public lands grazing issues, comments that there are some practical things that can be done to improve the relationship between livestock grazers and federal agencies.
The most important aspect of dealing with federal land managers is building a relationship.
“Having a good relationship with the folks we work with – whether that is range staff, the district manager or the forest supervisor – is so critical to having success on the ground,” Howard explains.
Oftentimes, those people permittees have relationships with are more likely to try and help the permittee when they need it.
“They also are a great source of information we might not otherwise have,” she comments. “Having the relationship is critical to being able to work with agencies.”
Howard also emphasizes that producers should focus on their long-term goals on the allotment, rather than fixating on small details.
“If we make a relationship with a young staff person who moves up over time, that long-term relationship is critical,” she adds. “Sometimes we have to sacrifice a particular principle at one moment to keep a long-term goal on track.”
After developing relationships with agency personnel, Howard suggests employing good consultants to help with the various technical aspects of the permit.
“Ranchers I see being really successful have good consultants helping them,” she comments. “Whether that is for range, wildlife, water or a combination, a good consultant who can work with the agency and is credible will make our lives easier.”
Consultants should be involved in annual operating meetings and other planning activities to help agency personnel understand what is happening out on the ground.
“It is necessary to have these folks advising us as we are sitting in our turn-out meetings and annual operating meetings to talk to the range conservationists and biologists about what’s going on,” Howard says.
She further notes that a person who has the credentials, background, personality and demeanor to effectively work with agencies can be an asset and an investment for a rancher.
With a solid team in place, Howard also notes that plans are important.
“We have to have plans for allotments, and we have to know how they interface with the programs on the ranch are important,” Howard says. “I know that most ranchers have that in their head, but they have to get it out on paper and figure out how to implement those plants.”
For long-term planning, she explains that it is important to provide what resources are available to help in cost-sharing and development of plans. Planning can also help ranchers determine the most cost- and time-effective solutions for constructing developments.
Working with agencies
Howard further says that those ranchers who successfully run on public land often work with the agencies managing the land to find opportunities to solve problems the agency is experiencing.
As an example, she uses an allotment that had a wild horse problem.
“The horses were at about four times their appropriate management level. The problem was significant,” Howard describes. “BLM’s real problem was that they didn't have anywhere to put the horses, so this producer decided not to file a lawsuit but rather to work with a consultant to develop a training facility.”
When pitched to BLM, the agency readily accepted the idea, and today, the rancher has created a training facility for wild horses.
“BLM is paying for the facility and the cost of his whole program,” Howard says. “He will train the horses and then they will be sold or adopted – and his cattle can graze again.”
“We have to look for opportunities to fix problems and be willing to be creative,” she emphasizes.
Another example is in monitoring. Monitoring data must be collected on BLM permits, but oftentimes range conservationists are spread thin over a wide area.
“A lot of states have worked out programs where permittees can work cooperatively to do their own monitoring,” Howard explains. “Cooperative monitoring agreements show that we have the ability to collect data they need to put in our files.”
After working together to build relationships, bring in experts, plan and work to solve agency problems, Howard notes, “If all else fails, then we may have to litigate. In many instances, there are a lot of other things we can do before we get to litigation.”
Howard spoke during the 2015 National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Cattle Industry Convention and Trade Show in late January.