One June 12, the House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources advanced the Grazing Improvement Act (H.R. 657) on a bipartisan vote of 27-15. The bill, PLC’s priority legislation, was amended in important and valuable ways before passage. H.R. 657 would greatly reduce the unnecessary and burdensome regulations being forced on ranchers on public lands under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It passed the House of Representatives last congressional session, and was introduced again this session by Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho). Its companion legislation in the Senate, S. 258, was reintroduced by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.). The legislation proposes to increase the term of grazing permits from 10 to 20 years, so that the burdens of NEPA review of expired permits will be reduced, thereby giving ranchers increased certainty that they may continue grazing and their operations will remain viable. Among other provisions to reduce the NEPA burden, the bill also proposes to codify longstanding appropriations language that would allow grazing to continue under existing terms and conditions while the NEPA backlog is being addressed.
The positive changes made to the bill in committee were proposed by Rep. Labrador. His amendment, passed by a voice vote of the Committee, greatly strengthened the bill in two ways. One measure exempted range improvements from NEPA review. Largely because of NEPA, the agencies for years have faced a significant backlog of range improvements. The millions of acres ravaged by wildfire in recent years have increased the backlog exponentially, threatening ranchers’ ability to continue operating in areas where fences, water structures, and livestock handling facilities have been destroyed. The amendment’s NEPA exemption will be crucial to allowing range improvements to be replaced so that livestock and the range may continue to be properly managed.
A second provision of Rep. Labrador’s amendment clarifies the intent of Congress with regard to who may appeal agency grazing decisions. Currently, Clinton-era BLM grazing regulations wrongly interpret statute in giving radical anti-grazing groups unprecedented legal standing with regard to grazing decisions. Under the grazing regulations put in place in 1995 by then-Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt, members of the public with no property interest in the land or resources may appeal final grazing decisions to an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Groups such as Western Watersheds Project (WWP) thus have been given undue influence in final grazing decisions. Babbitt’s regulations also established excessively strenuous range health standards, making it even easier for radical groups to find reasons to appeal grazing decisions. In a recent example, an appeal made possible by Babbitt’s regulations allowed WWP to insert their “science” and monitoring data into a 25,000-acre Duck Creek allotment in Utah, which will result in major grazing reductions. The appeal proceedings were extremely costly to the ranchers involved and lasted 14 weeks. If the ALJ’s misguided reasoning in this case were to be applied broadly, it would devastate the entire industry. Hundreds of appeals such as this are filed on grazing decisions by radical groups each year, costing ranchers hundreds of thousands of dollars as they attempt to defend their livelihoods. Thanks to Babbitt’s regulations, grazing decisions are the only agency decision on federal lands that allow radical groups such standing. Rep. Labrador’s amendment would do away with this iniquity.
While Rep. Labrador’s amendments passed by a strong voice vote, another amendment, offered by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), failed. We were not surprised by Rep. Grijalva’s proposal to arbitrarily raise the grazing fee by 74 percent. Also not surprisingly, the amendment failed resoundingly on a voice vote. The current fee is market-based and more than fair, when counting all the costs of ranching on federal lands. This fee increase would likely have decreased revenue to the government by forcing ranchers out of business. While Rep. Grijalva cited the “increased cost” of the grazing program as his reasoning for the fee increase, he failed to mention that those costs are incurred not by normal administration of the program, but by overregulation and predatory litigation by radical anti-grazing groups.