Subcommittee considers Grazing Improvement Act of 2011 in DCWritten by Christy Martinez
That’s a statement made by Wyoming Stock Growers Association Executive (WSGA) Vice President Jim Magagna to the Public Lands and Forests Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on March 22 in Washington, D.C.
Magagna spoke to the subcommittee as a representative of both WSGA and the Public Lands Council in defense of S. 1129 Grazing Improvement Act of 2011, introduced by Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, which would amend the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 to improve the management of grazing leases and permits.
According to WSGA, nationally more than 22,000 families rely on public lands grazing to maintain their ranching operations.
Bill extends term permits
“While grazing was historically viewed only as a ‘use’ of public lands, today it has also come to be recognized as an important ‘tool’ for the management of these lands,” continued Magagna in his comments.
“Over the past 40 years, livestock have become recognized as an important tool for rangeland management on both public and private lands,” he explained. “While appropriate levels of utilization remain important, timing and intensity of grazing have become key management tools. Sophisticated analytical systems allow livestock grazing to be utilized to bring about significant changes in forage composition over long periods of time.”
“From the perspective of livestock production, modern range science and land agency work load, a longer-term approach to the permitting of public land grazing is needed today,” said Magagna. “Section 2 of the Grazing Improvement Act of 2011 directly meets this need by extending term permits to 20 years. This critical change will bring needed certainty, improved range management and greater agency efficiency.”
However, Magagna noted that, in the context of a change to a 20-year permit, the ability of the agency to make needed management adjustments through the annual authorization to graze (BLM) or annual operating plan (Forest Service) is not diminished. He said the agencies also retain the authority to issue shorter term permits under special conditions.
Certainty and stability
Section 3 of S. 1129 takes an additional important step in providing certainty and stability to the industry by incorporating into statute language that makes permanent the protection that has been provided by the appropriations rider on permit renewal, said Magagna.
“It recognizes that the renewal, reissuance or transfer of a permit does not, per se, have a resource impact so long as there is no change in the grazing management,” he explained. “By categorically excluding these actions from the requirement to prepare an environmental analysis, this section restores the role of environmental analysis to its proper function – an analysis of the potential impacts of a commitment of resources (changes to an RMP or Forest Plan) or a new on-the-ground activity.
“This section also takes a practical approach by properly acknowledging that minor modifications to renewed, reissued or transferred permits are acceptable, so long as they do not interfere with the achievement of or progress toward land and resource management plan objectives, and so long as extraordinary circumstances do not indicate a need for further analysis.”
Magagna added that time pressures over the last 10 years have led to NEPA analysis that is frequently either substantively or procedurally inadequate, and is therefore subject to successful administrative and judicial challenge.
“Taken together, Sections 2 and 3 represent a major step toward returning the focus of public land grazing to on-the-ground activities including management plans and range improvements,” he noted. “The resource, the land agencies and the grazing permittees all stand to benefit from these adjustments.”
Magagna said the stability of individual ranching operations will be further assured by the passage of Section 4 of the bill, which requires all appeals of grazing permit decisions be conducted “on the record” in accordance with the fundamental principles of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA).
Currently the Forest Service lacks an independent body to hear administrative appeals similar to the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA) that adjudicates BLM appeals.
“As a result, permit appeals within the Forest Service are decided by the next level line officer,” stated Magagna. “Most often the deciding officer is the immediate supervisor of the author of the decision being appealed. It is understandable that research shows 85 percent of appeals under this structure are upheld. Frankly, I most often advise Forest Service permittees that an administrative appeal of a permit decision is little more than a necessary procedural step to set the stage for a judicial appeal.”
“While BLM appeals are conducted through a less prejudiced system, these permittee appeals nevertheless place a tremendous burden on the appellant,” he continued. “Strict adherence to the APA will properly place the burden of proof on both federal agencies to show that their decisions are correct in law and in fact.”
Because there is no current provision for a stay of a decision pending appeal, Magagna said the permittee can be faced with making significant and costly adjustments to a ranching operation based on a decision that may be overturned through the administrative appeal.
“Section 4 will assure the decision is suspended and that current grazing is allowed to continue until the appeal is resolved,” he said. “There is, appropriately, an exception where failure to implement the decision would result in an immediate deterioration of the resource.”
Small steps, large results
In addition to the direct effects for those who graze livestock on public lands, Magagna also pointed out the social benefits of public lands grazing, mentioning that it is essential to maintaining the integrity of landscapes in the West, and that the majority of ranches are not economically viable without access to forage on public lands.
“There are certain times when small steps can produce large results,” said Magagna of the bill. “In S. 1129, Senator Barrasso takes those small steps. The results will include greater stability for the livestock industry, a renewed focus on long-term resource management, enhanced agency efficiency and continuation of the broad public benefits provided by both public and private lands in the West. On behalf of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, Public Lands Council and its affiliates and, most significantly, the over 22,000 families dependent on public land grazing, I urge your support for this legislation.”
The next step for the bill is for Subcommittee Chair Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) to decide whether or not to mark up the bill. Magagna says he doubts it will come up on the Senate floor very soon, but he calls the current efforts “groundwork” to build support and set the stage for action at some point. A similar bill is moving through the U.S. House of Representatives with Wyoming Representative Cynthia Lummis as a cosponsor.
Public land supports livestock industry
The latest available data show that there were over 8.7 million animal unit months (AUMs) of grazing authorized on BLM lands in fiscal year (FY) 2010. This grazing was administered through 17,740 permits and leases.
“The Forest Service in the 15 western states permitted 6.1 million AUMs on national forests and an additional 2.2 million of national grasslands. While data is often cited showing the relatively small amount of beef or lamb produced on public lands, such statements ignore the importance of these lands in an integrated ranching operation,” said Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) Executive Vice President Jim Magagna to the Public Lands and Forests Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on March 22 in Washington, D.C.
“Approximately 40 percent of beef cattle in the West and half of the nation’s sheep spend some time on federal lands. Without public land grazing, grazing use of significant portions of state and private lands would necessarily cease, and the cattle and sheep industries would be dramatically downsized, threatening infrastructure and the entire market structure,” he continued.