Today’s hearing in the Senate Subcommittee on Energy and Natural Resources focused on the grazing programs of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service. Members of Congress should be asking some tough questions regarding the agencies’ ongoing efforts to avoid compliance with environmental protections, and their apparent inability to keep up with their workload.
Polls show that the American public agrees that no agency should be above the law, yet the BLM has continued to ask Congress for a “get out of jail free” card, providing a blanket exemption from environmental review of grazing allotment. The BLM, along with the Forest Service, wants to avoid examining the environmental impacts of grazing on lands owned by all Americans, ignoring the very laws which Congress passed to ensure that agency activities protect environmental resources. It’s time we ask the hard questions.
In 1994, then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt revised the BLM’s grazing regulations to ensure that livestock use would be balanced along with other resources in order to improve the health of BLM rangelands. The process, followed by the Department of the Interior in revising these rules, included extensive public participation, the Secretary’s personal involvement over an extended period of time, and a comprehensive environmental review. An environmental impact statement (EIS) prepared in 1994 documented the urgent need to change the existing grazing rules, which dated back to the Reagan Administration. The EIS showed that in order to protect the public’s rangelands from further livestock abuse and to restore resources that had been unacceptably damaged by overgrazing, the rangeland rules needed to be changed. But the livestock industry objected to the final rules and challenged them in court. They took their complaint all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in 2000, unanimously held that the Secretary possessed the authority to adopt the new rules.
In 2001, the architect of the industry’s unsuccessful legal fight, Bill Myers, became the Interior Department’s top lawyer (or Solicitor) and, on March 3, 2003, the BLM announced its intention to revise its grazing regulations and prepare a new EIS on the proposed rule changes. Unsurprisingly, the new proposed grazing regulations include much of what the industry tried to get through their court challenge. By undoing these regulations, the BLM proposes to undermine a portion of its own character: to protect natural resources.
Here’s some of the questions that need to be asked:
- Why does the BLM feel compelled to revise its grazing regulations when the last set of revisions has yet to be fully implemented?
- The inadequacies of prior grazing rules were repeatedly documented in the BLM’s 1994 Rangeland Reform EIS, yet the current proposed changes appear to dismantle many of the improvements made by Rangeland Reform. On the basis of what specific new information does the BLM justify the proposed changes and the apparent step backwards that they involve?
- The proposed changes suggest possible revision of the current regulations’ requirement to alter grazing management before the next grazing season, if authorized practices are preventing specific Rangeland Health Standards and Guidelines from being met. This “action forcing requirement” is the key to achieving rangeland health, as defined by local Resource Advisory Councils (RACs) comprised of diverse interests through an intensive collaborative process. How can the BLM reconcile eliminating the means by which these locally-developed standards and guides are to be attained with the Secretary’s “Four C’s” which the RACs in fact epitomize?
In the 1995 Rescissions Act, and each year since 1999 in appropriations bills, the Forest Service and the BLM have asked Congress to include language requiring the renewal of grazing permits without environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The agencies have attempted to justify these requests based on a backlog of processing permit renewals, and Congress has passed such legislation with the understanding that it was to allow the agencies to get caught up. Yet despite continuing requests for such language in the past several years, we have seen very little effort by the agencies to meet their new schedules and deadlines. Congress has also provided increased funding for both agencies, but neither agency has responded with a serious effort to eliminate the permitting backlog. Instead, what we are seeing now is a constant renewal of permits, many environmentally damaging to western watersheds and habitat for endangered wildlife, without consideration of current monitoring data for best management practices.
Here’s some of the questions that need to be asked:
- What is it going to take for the agencies to get caught up? What are the agencies doing to conduct environmental reviews under NEPA so that permits are not renewed without addressing environmental concerns?
- How many permits and leases have been renewed, re-issued, waived or transferred since 1995 for Forest Service and 1999 for BLM without completion of the analysis required by NEPA?
- How many permits have been processed in accordance with NEPA since 1995 and 1999 respectively?
For a backgrounder on the environmental impacts of grazing, click here.
Cat Lazaroff and Randy Moorman, Earthjustice, 202-667-4500
Johanna Wald, NRDC, 415-777-0220
John Horning, Forest Guardians, 505-988-9126
Matt Niemerski, Defenders of Wildlife, 202-682-9400
Kristen Sykes, Friends of the Earth, 202-783-7400
Gilly Lyons, National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, 202-547-9267
Marc Smith, National Wildlife Federation, 202-797-6864
Martin Taylor, Center for Biological Diversity, 520-623-5252
Bill Marlett, Oregon Natural Desert Association, 541-330-2638