WAR ON WESTERN GRAZING RETURNS TO FEDERAL COURT
by William Perry Pendley
October 1, 2010
In 1992, when Clinton ran for president, environmental groups made clear their objective once he entered the Oval Office. “Cattle Free in ’93,” they cried, demanding that Clinton vacate the 18,000 grazing permits and leases held by western ranchers on nearly 160 million acres across the American West, notwithstanding that livestock grazing on those lands has been a part of the West since the late 1830s when Texas cowboys drove their herds north.
In those early days, livestock roamed freely; fences were nonexistent. Then, in 1934, the Taylor Grazing Act—enacted to remedy overgrazing and soil damage, but also “to stabilize the livestock industry dependent upon the public range”—gave agencies authority to manage federal lands, create grazing districts, and issue grazing permits subject to “payment annually of reasonable fees” as “fixed or determined from time to time.” The increased environmental consciousness of the 1970s did not alter Congress’s view of grazing on federal lands; in fact, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA) assured the ability of ranchers with grazing allotments to stay in business by requiring “equitable” and “reasonable” fees.
In 1978, with the Public Rangelands Improvement Act (PRIA), Congress supported western ranchers by requiring that fees be “equitable,” “prevent economic disruption and harm to the western livestock industry,” and consider the cost of livestock production and the ability to pay. In 1986, President Reagan ordered continued use of the PRIA formula, an Order set aside for failure to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In 1988, after NEPA analysis, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service issued rules to use the PRIA formula to set fees annually; the formula is used today.
Because the federal government owns much of the land in the West—61% of Idaho, 79% of Nevada, and 60% of Utah—and even more land in rural counties—97% of Wyoming’s Teton County—ranchers cannot exist without grazing allotments on adjacent or nearby federal lands. Moreover, these ranchers repay the “favor” because, not only do they maintain the environmental quality of those lands—where their almost daily presence does the work that thousands of bureaucrats could not do—they also seek to improve it, including, for example, by providing for water supplies, which benefits local wildlife and increases the value of the land itself. Furthermore, their nearby ranches, which preserve, unchanged, the wide open spaces that characterize the West, also provide essential winter habitat for wildlife.
Nonetheless, radical environmental groups, fixed on their utopian dream of restoring the West to “pre-settlement conditions,” demand an end to grazing. They dismiss ranchers, many who trace their presence on the land to original homesteaders, as “welfare cowboys” and blithely assert that the rural communities and counties that depend on agriculture could transition easily to a tourist economy.
The Clinton Administration’s changes to grazing rules, which imperiled western grazing, ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000, where they were upheld; but, as rancher Justice O’Connor pointed out, the rules had not yet been implemented; lawsuits would follow if they were. Because Bush officials did not share the Clinton team’s views on grazing, the front shifted to litigation by environmental groups to compel even more regulation of grazing, which already dangerously hobbles ranchers. Yet another lawsuit seeks Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) release of private information on all grazing permit holders. Given that the FBI regards eco-terrorism as America’s primary domestic terror threat, any such release is worrisome.
Then, in June 2010, five environmental groups filed their biggest challenge yet, a bold attempt, via NEPA and their demands for increased grazing fees, to kill western grazing. Days ago, 27 national and western groups sought to intervene in the lawsuit filed in Washington, D.C. For western ranchers and their families, the communities that depend upon them, and the wide-open landscapes that they savor and save daily, much hangs in the balance.
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