The Trump administration has struck another blow to common-sense management of public lands in the West. Virtually all the spectacular country neighboring the Escalante River in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah will be reopened to cattle grazing, thanks to a new plan for managing the monument released by the Interior Department last month.
The move manages to be both anti-rancher and anti-environment.
Over the past few decades, similar deals around the West have sought to resolve conflicts between conservationists and ranchers running livestock on public lands by cooperation rather than confrontation and litigation.
In Nevada’s Great Basin National Park, for instance, ranchers who held public land grazing permits when the land became part of the park in 1986 agreed to relinquish their permits in return for being compensated by the Conservation Fund, a nonprofit conservation group.
These arrangements have attracted support from across the political spectrum. In 2001, George W. Bush’s libertarian interior secretary, Gale Norton, celebrated this approach as a “marketplace-oriented resolution for public land conflicts” — a win-win.
The labyrinthine canyon lands of the Escalante River, a magnet for adventuresome recreationists, show why the idea is such a good one. In the late 1990s, ranchers holding the grazing permits there decided they had had enough. One wanted to retire, one wanted to run his stock in less difficult terrain and a third wanted to move his operation to another state.
These willing sellers negotiated an agreement with the nonprofit Grand Canyon Trust to relinquish their grazing privileges for cash. The Utah State Division of Wildlife Resources then endorsed the idea of retiring the area from livestock grazing, Utah’s Republican governor, Michael Leavitt, signed off on it, and the Interior Department agreed, finding that it would restore a fragile and treasured gem to ecological health.
The effect on the local grazing economy was infinitesimal; over 96 percent of the original national monument remained open to grazing at the same level as before. (The area retired from grazing remained within the monument’s boundaries after President Trump drastically shrank it in 2017.)
This means ranchers — particularly those struggling to scratch out a living on hardscrabble desert lands where conservation buyers are often the only willing buyers of grazing privileges — will suffer alongside the environment.
The Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act (H.R.5737), legislation introduced in Congress by Adam Smith, a Democrat of Washington, and several co-sponsors would fix the problem, by protecting negotiated buyouts and permit retirements from the executive branch’s political whims.
Unfortunately, it faces an uphill battle. The national trade association of enterprises running livestock on public land, the Public Lands Council — seeking to preserve its membership and influence — fiercely resists retiring even a single acre of public land from grazing.
Perhaps the recklessness of the Interior Department’s latest decision will spur more members of Congress to support this sensible legislation that benefits ranchers while restoring public lands to health.
Source: NY Times Opinion, "A free-market solution to protect a spectacular landscape was working", by John Leshy.
Leshy was the general counsel at the Department of the Interior during the Clinton administration. He's also an emeritus professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law and the author of the forthcoming book “Our Common Ground,” a history of America’s public lands. He has been on the board of the Grand Canyon Trust since 2002.
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Congressman Adam Smith (D-WA) introduced the Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act, (H.R.5737) to reduce conflicts on federal public lands and increase flexibility for federal grazing permittees.
Livestock grazing on federal public lands conflicts with other multiple uses that can have impacts on wildlife habitat, wild horse HMA's and recreational opportunities. In many cases, simply removing livestock is the best solution to reduce or resolve these conflicts. However, current law and regulations either do not allow for the retirement of grazing permits or make the process unnecessarily difficult and uncertain.
The voluntary retirement of grazing permits authorized by the Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act (VGPRA) is the most cost-effective and equitable way to address this issue. It would provide grazing permit holders the option to voluntarily waive their permits to graze on federal lands in exchange for market value compensation paid by private parties. The federal agency would then be directed to retire the associated grazing allotment from further grazing activity.
As expected, the proposed law is opposed by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Public Lands Council, both industry groups, which contend that it would fly in the face of two previous acts of Congress enshrining grazing as part of a multi-pronged approach to public lands use.
“I don’t think that federal land management policy should be taken away from those line officers and range conservationists at the BLM and Forest Service in favor of third-party entities with their own agenda,” Tanner Beymer, associate director of government affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said.
Currently, environmental groups are allowed to purchase grazing permits from ranchers, but they cannot retire them without congressional authorization.
The 10 Years to AML: Path Forward for Management of BLM's Wild Horses and Burros is an agenda of the livestock industry, which aims to eradicate wild horses from America's public lands.
The Senate Appropriations Committee approved $35 million last week for the program supported by an unprecedented alliance including the Humane Society of the United States, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and American Farm Bureau Federation.
They say it would eliminate the threat of slaughter for thousands of free-roaming horses and shrink the size of herds primarily through expanded fertility controls on the range. Critics say it drops long-held opposition to the capture of mustangs across 10 western states and could allow for sterilization of mares — a hot-button issue with horse protection advocates historically.
They had sought a $50 million increase in the BLM’s $80 million annual horse budget, arguing any boost in spending on contraception and other population controls ultimately will save money as herds shrink.
“This is a historic moment for our herds, containing the strongest language protecting wild horses and burros we have ever seen in an annual appropriations bill,” Matt Bershadker, president and CEO of the ASPCA, said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press on Friday. He said it increases “commitments to protect these animals from killing or sale to slaughter.”
BLM estimated 88,000 wild horses and burros are roaming public rangelands, more than three times what the agency says the land can support. Another 50,000 that have been removed from the range in recent years were in holding facilities at an annual cost of about $50 million.
Horse advocates have argued the animals must be permitted to roam the range in federally protected management areas established under the Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971. They say BLM’s population quotas are often outdated and lack scientific data to support roundups to cull herd sizes.
Ginger Kathrens, director of The Cloud Foundation based in Colorado, said the new initiative dubbed the “Path Forward” should be called the “path to extinction.” She said it sets population targets to less than 27,000 — the total when federal protections first were enacted nearly a half-century ago. “The extinction-level number is what caused Congress to unanimously pass the Wild Horse and Burro Act,” she said.
Source: Time Magazine