The cattle conflict
Public lands grazing rule change stirs debate

SideStory: Lawsuits swirl around new grazing rules

by Will Sands

The BLM contends that the new rules will enhance its relationship with ranchers and encourage them to undertake more improvements to their public lands allotments.

“These new regulations are aimed at promoting more effective and efficient management of public lands grazing, which is a vital part of the history, economy and social identity of Western rural communities,” BLM Director Kathleen Clarke said.

Among other things, the new rule authorizes ranchers to have partial ownership over any improvements, including fencing and water projects, they make to public lands.

It gives the agency a longer timeframe to reprimand grazing violations. The rule also establishes more direct rancher management and limits public involvement in the leases.

Currently, 103 ranchers graze their livestock on BLM land in the San Juan Mountains. This equates to tens of thousands of cattle and sheep, and ranchers pay $1.56

per head of livestock per month for the privelege. Mark Tucker, San Juan Public Lands Rangeland Management Program Leader, oversees grazing on the public land in the vicinity of Durango and beyond. With respect to the rule change, Tucker said he expected little to change in terms of local management.

“I really don’t think it’s going to change anything,” he noted. “There’s nothing in the new regulations that affect the quality of management on these lands. If anything, there will be improvements, like the new requirement to document the social and economic effects of a decision.”

Conservationists take a different view of the new regulations. One group that is not pleased is the Durango-based Great Old Broads for Wilderness, which has watchdogged public lands grazing since its 1989 inception.

“Historically, there has been a lot of negative impact due to private livestock on public lands,” said Ronni Egan, Great Old Broads executive director. “Grazing damages wildlife habitat, water quality and archaeological resources and encourages the spread of invasive species. I think it’s pretty safe to say that all those things are occurring on all of our public lands due to 100 years of poorly managed grazing.”

These impacts are particularly hard to swallow, according to Egan, when you consider that public lands grazing provides a small fraction of the nation’s beef.

“There are fewer than 20,000 permitees operating in the entire country, and yet they have a real stranglehold on our public lands,” she commented. “Less than 3 percent of the beef we consume in this country is produced on public land. That’s a big price to pay for a little bit of hamburger. We’d never miss that beef if it stopped coming.”

With this in mind, Egan said that the new regulations weaken an already weak public lands grazing framework. New constraints on public input into the process are particularly distressing for Great Old Broads.

“It’s a real giveaway to the private livestock industry,” Egan said. “The BLM is revising the grazing regulations in such a manner as to virtually eliminate public input into management decisions.”

The Western Watersheds Project shared Egan’s concerns to the extent that the group fired off a lawsuit challenging the regulations last week. Jon Marvel, the group’s executive director, commented, “The proposed changes to the BLM’s grazing rules are nothing less than a rollback to the rancher controlled era of 50 years ago. The BLM is choosing to cut the public out of grazing management on public lands and to ignore the desire of Americans to protect and recover our native wildlife and watersheds across the West.”

The BLM takes a different view, according to Tucker, viewing the change as a positive move toward better efficiency. “We still encourage public comments and concerns,” Tucker said. “But by modifying the definition of ‘interested public,’ the new rule is helping us to do our job. It puts the responsibility on the folks who want to be involved to actually participate.”

Tucker then added, “By and large, I don’t think there’s anything in the new regulations that will prevent us from doing our job.”

Great Old Broads would also like to see the BLM do its job. However, when it comes to impacts from grazing the group and the agency do not see eye to eye.

“Great Old Broads doesn’t hate ranchers,” Egan said. “What we don’t like are poorly managed public lands. A little bit of carefully managed grazing could happen, but it would have to be carefully managed. Under these new grazing regulations we’re taking a huge step backwards.”

Prior to taking that huge step, the conservation community will try to settle their concern in the only venue that is still open to them – the courtroom. “It’s a shame we have to file lawsuits against our public agencies to get them to follow their own regulations,” Egan concluded. “In this day and age, it’s not just grazing. It’s across the board environmentally.” •