Before pouring the gas into it and driving it like he stole it, Richard Petty always made sure he was in the right race. So, too, must an organization that protects the families and communities of over 20,000 ranchers with public land grazing rights in the West. At the recent annual meeting of the Public Lands Council (PLC) in Ignacio, CO, leaders of the public land grazing industry put their heads together to make sure they were pouring their resources into the right racetrack.
The bulk of the time spent in Ignacio reviewed ongoing battles in what one rancher called the “conventional arena” of federal land ownership. There were plenty of signs at the three-day meeting that, unless there comes a change, the ranching industry is in a losing race.
Grazing numbers are steadily declining across Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) lands. One presenter at the PLC meeting, Carl Graham, Director of the Sutherland Coalition for Self-Government in the West, attributed this decline to the fact that the bulk of the American population— which drives public land decisions—doesn’t understand rural production economies, and furthermore sees people as a blight on the western landscape. “There’s more of them than us,” said Graham, referring to the urban masses that are either misinformed or uninformed about grazing and agriculture.
Indeed, it seems the booming chorus of the general public often drowns out the relative whisper of western ranchers—the ones who have both the incentive and the know-how to promote the health of rangelands and the longevity of rural ranching communities. This model, where ranchers must defend themselves against litigious “environmental” groups and the opinions of a largely urban public, results in a stark pattern that permeates nearly every issue on public lands. Consider the following:
With sage grouse regulations sitting in the federal hopper, PLC is working to educate Washington, D.C., agency officials and legislators about the benefits of grazing and the continued multiple-use management of federal lands. PLC is pursuing legislation to stop a listing of the bird under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which could happen as early as September 2015. However, given that both the agencies and Congress are influenced by public opinion, PLC faces a bigger challenge than a few meetings on Capitol Hill. Educating the masses is a big undertaking. At the Ignacio meeting, the PLC board of directors approved over $200,000 in funding to begin a public relations campaign in hopes of moving the needle of public opinion on sage grouse and other issues.
Meanwhile, “environmental” groups with plenty of funding (thanks in part to individual donations, and in part to the taxpayer dollars they reap when they sue the government) are already suing the government to get sage grouse “protections.” For example, PLC has joined ranchers and the Idaho Cattle Association in appealing BLM proposals to cut grazing on 68 allotments in Owyhee County by 35 to 47 percent. The cuts are being driven by litigation by the anti-grazing organization, Western Watersheds Project (WWP).
If history is any measure, any “protections” that are put in place for sage grouse will never be enough for groups like WWP. These groups will keep suing and, in most cases, reaping taxpayer dollars for their lawsuits. Whether they are actually helping the species seems to be a tertiary matter. This is evidenced by the fact that sage grouse, like so many other “protected” species, will actually be harmed by said “protections”—which prevent important management activities such as grazing and logging.
According to Kent Holsinger, an attorney from Colorado who presented at the PLC meeting, the government’s sage grouse science and data are being manipulated, misused, or even created to support decisions that are harmful to industry. He cited as examples the two primary reports being used by the federal government to predict sage grouse declines and identify threats.
According to Western Energy Alliance (WEA), which Holsinger represents, the reports “fail to meet basic standards of science and contain a number of serious flaws, including selective presentation of scientific information, outdated information, disproportionate influence from a small group of activist scientists, lack of credible peer review, and biased threat analyses.” PLC has joined WEA and a growing coalition of local governments and industry groups to build an administrative record under the Data Quality Act. By refuting the agencies’ “science,” they hope to hold the line against damaging federal decisions.
Meanwhile, the federal government is moving forward with decisions based on its “science.” BLM and USFS are proposing regulations that would severely cut grazing. Unless something changes, a listing of the bird would also result in grazing cuts—this time brought by FWS. PLC’s has participated in the public comment periods on the BLM and USFS proposed regulations, in hopes of influencing the final outcomes. According to PLC’s legal experts at the meeting, if the bird is ultimately listed by FWS, PLC may sue. If it’s not listed, the experts said, we can reasonably expect that “environmental” groups will sue.
Either way, with both sides appealing, this legal battle could go on a long time.
ESA: A bigger beast
Susan Combs, Comptroller of Accounts for Texas, brought the sage grouse discussion into perspective. Even if the bird didn’t exist, Combs noted that ESA woes would continue to plague the country. Anyone can petition to list any species, she said, and nobody can legally challenge it until FWS makes a final listing decision. She showed PLC attendees colorful heat maps (available at www.keepingtexasfirst.org/map) of the United States where species are either listed, or awaiting listing decisions. Under the ESA and its current regulations, there are many, many more legal battles to come. Combs noted that ESA decisions are particularly “draconian” in the West, where federal lands dominate the landscape. ESA regulations require extensive analysis of federal actions (such as allowing grazing) that might affect listed species.
Similarly to the sage grouse example, PLC is working to educate both D.C. agency officials and Congress about the importance of maintaining a balance of multiple uses on the landscape—which requires management of wild horse populations. However, be cause
Washington decisionmakers are influenced by the court of public opinion, horse herds are growing at alarming rates. Constant litigation by “horse advocates” is preventing gathers across the West, which are crucial to maintaining sustainable herd sizes. PLC currently engaged in two lawsuits—one in Utah, and one in northern California— to try to force BLM and USFS to manage the horses. But, as put by Brice Lee, the outgoing President of PLC, “I’ve never seen a judge that’s a very good range con (conservationist) or (wild) horse manager.”
PLC is thus putting considerable effort into outreach and education. For example, it is a founding member of the National Horse and Burro Rangeland Management Coalition, a group that strives to bring the facts about wild horses to Washington and the public (see www.wildhorserange.org). But changes in Washington and public opinion are always slow. Meanwhile, horse populations continue to increase, and other uses—such as livestock grazing—continue to decline.
Once again, WWP is behind an effort to remove livestock from the range— this time based on claims that domestic sheep are threatening bighorn sheep populations. According to Jim Richards, who presented at the PLC meeting on behalf of the American Sheep Industry Association, 25 percent of the U.S. domestic sheep herd counts on bighorn habitat for forage.
USFS is developing a zero-risk policy based on evidence that bighorn can contract pneumonia-causing bacteria from domestic sheep. Although there’s no evidence that normal range conditions pose a substantial threat to bighorn, USFS is in some cases calling for a nine-mile buffer zone between bighorn habitat and domestic sheep. The agency has already removed 90 percent of the domestic sheep from the Payette National Forest in the name of bighorn, and is moving forward with similar policies in various planning documents being drafted across the West. PLC has joined Idaho Wool Growers and the affected ranchers in a challenge of the Payette decision and USFS’ “science.” Sheep ranchers’ fate, it seems, is in a federal judge’s hands. Drought Policy.
As demonstrated by recent events in Battle Mountain, NV, where ranching families are being forced off their summer ranges based on unscientific agency decisions, agency “drought” policies pose another major threat to industry. Again, anti-grazing group WWP seems to have had a hand in the decision to remove grazing from the allotment in Battle Mountain, having toured the allotment at least once with BLM officials. (The affected ranchers, of course, were not invited on that tour.) Despite the fact that there haven’t been drought conditions in the area, BLM’s “science” says there is. Even if there were, BLM’s proposed grazing cuts and extended rest periods would not be appropriate, according to industry. As reported at the PLC meeting by a Nevada rancher, the legal branch of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association is appealing the Battle Mountain decision. The entire industry, he said, should be careful not to let BLM’s “drought” policy in Nevada stand—or spread.
Changing the Game?
As evidenced by these and many more examples uncovered during the PLC meeting, the “conventional arena” of federal land ownership offers a clear pattern. In every instance, there is public mis-education; litigation by groups that make a career out of suing the government; agency misuse or disregard of science; and industry constantly attempting to fight back in the court of law and the court of public opinion. Graham, the Director of the Sutherland Coalition for Self-Government in the West, told PLC attendees about his efforts to change the name of the game. He said the federal lands system allows people to make a career of suing the government, and allows the urban masses—who don’t understand or live in the rural West—to have undue influence over rural westerners’ homes and livelihoods. The states, he said, need to “grab the handle of the whip” when it comes to management of the public lands within their borders. He said this might be achieved through states’ gaining ownership of federal lands. He talked about five western states that have passed or are considering passing legislation to that effect (learn more at www.endfedaddiction.org). Even if it’s just getting national legislation passed to give states real, meaningful coordination with the federal government, Graham said, it’s time for the states to have more influence.
“Your voice isn’t nearly as loud in D.C. as it would be in your state capitol,” said Graham. “It’s time to restore the balance our framers envisioned.”
At the annual meeting, PLC put together a committee to explore the concept of transferring federal lands to the states. Several ranchers noted that, at the same time that gaining state control of federal lands could have appeal, changing the status quo could open a Pandora’s Box and threaten grazing rights currently protected under the Taylor Grazing Act. During the discussion, the room buzzed with questions. If one state succeeds in gaining control of the federal lands within its borders, what are the implications for federal lands ranchers in other states? Would states that do gain ownership of federal lands honor existing grazing rights? Might they raise the grazing fee to prohibitively costly levels?
These are the kinds of questions PLC hopes to answer as they speed ahead in the race to save ranching in the West. — WLJ