Free range

  Livestock foraging on 160 million acres of public lands could roam more freely than ever, thanks to a recent policy change at the Bureau of Land Management. On Aug. 14, the BLM granted eight new “categorical exclusions,” designed to speed up the approval process for a slew of activities on public lands, including grazing, logging, oil and gas drilling and recreational use.

Among the major changes is a paring down of the renewal process for the roughly 18,000 grazing permits the agency administers. Previously, when a permit was up for renewal, the BLM was obliged to conduct a formal environmental assessment and call for public comments under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), giving the average citizen an open invitation to speak up.

Now, under the new guidelines, if a grazing allotment appears to be in good shape and the permit is being renewed for roughly the same use as before, the agency may approve the renewal without a rigorous environmental assessment – or formal public comment.

It’s this last part that has environmentalists worried. Bobby McEnaney, public-lands advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, is concerned about losing the eyes and ears of the public in the renewal process. “There have been a number of cases around the West where an individual citizen has pointed out a sage grouse lek or salmon habitat (on grazing lands), and the BLM has made a change,” he says. “The key fatal flaw is that public input will not be valued in this process.”

Others welcome the new procedures. Jeff Eisenberg, director of federal lands for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, believes that the changes will allow the under-funded BLM to be more efficient. Federal land management agencies have an enormous job and not enough resources, he says: “When they are scrambling around and can’t do their work adequately, that makes it hard for us.”

For several years, the cattlemen’s association has supported changes that would streamline grazing permit renewal. Resolutions in its annual policy books dating back to 2003 recommend that the BLM and Forest Service allow the public to have a say only in larger-scale decisions, not in the nitty-gritty of individual grazing permits.

And it appears that the association’s wish has been granted, at least partially. According to BLM estimates, approximately one-third of the roughly 2,300 permits that are renewed each year will be eligible for the new fast-tracked approval. Even so, a determined individual can still find ways to get involved in individual allotment decisions, according to Bob Bolton, a senior rangeland management specialist with the BLM. People can visit their local BLM offices to request information, express concerns or appeal a permit renewed under a categorical exclusion, he says. The agency will notify those who make this extra effort about decisions affecting the allotments in question.

It’s hard to tell whether the changes will ultimately harm public lands, says Sherman Swanson, a rangeland management extension specialist with the University of Nevada, Reno. As with other procedural changes issued by federal agencies, much depends on how the new rules are implemented. “If the opportunity to do a categorical exclusion allows them to go through another round (of permit renewals) without making changes where they need to,” he says, “then it is simply a pressure valve, and we haven’t accomplished much.”

However the new procedures play out, one thing is clear: The public has lost an open opportunity to comment on an estimated 800 individual permit renewals each year. Citizens must now either rely on the BLM’s judgment about whether the land is healthy, or make a special effort to become involved in the process. And it doesn’t end with grazing. Under the other new categorical exclusions, hundreds of additional projects, including salvage logging operations and seismic testing for energy development, could now be exempted from formal review as well.
Sep 10, 2007 04:09 PM

If this statement is true "... the changes will allow the under-funded BLM to be more efficient. Federal land management agencies have an enormous job and not enough resources..."  then the solution is to fund the agency to the level necessary to do the job it is assigned not redefine its mission to one of allowing grazing to continue without review of the on the ground conditions in the permit area.

Sep 13, 2007 02:57 PM

Good point by the first Anonymous post. I bet BLM would love to be fully funded to the level necessary to do the job assigned.  But when Congress continually cuts and cuts the BLM budget, what is the agency to do?  The BLM does not fund itself.  Therefore, facing continuing cuts with more and more to do every year, BLM adjusts what it can within its control to more efficiently meet their mission.  What about more money for our important land management agencies and a little less on the quagmire in Iraq? 

I agree with the main point of the article that we need to weary of decreasing public participation, and to some extent NEPA analysis.  However, if BLM has overstepped its bounds here, the courts will overturn this policy.  In addition, this assertion in the article is wrong: “Previously, when a permit was up for renewal, the BLM was obliged to conduct a formal environmental assessment (EA) and call for public comments under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), giving the average citizen an open invitation to speak up.”  First of all, many permit renewals were previously being done as DNAs, or “Documentation of NEPA Adequacy.”  This means that the same decision was previously analyzed in an EA.  Again, only if there are no changes to season of use, type of livestock, or the condition of the range, the BLM referred to the original EA.  This, like a categorical exclusion, is not a NEPA analysis.  So, the BLM was not obliged to conduct an EA. 

Secondly, there can be just as much opportunity for public participation in a DNA or even a categorical exclusion as there is in an EA.  BLM posts its “NEPA logs” on the internet, which contain all the NEPA projects (including DNAs and categorical exclusions) currently being worked on.  If the public did have concerns about a sage grouse lek, for example, they need only contact the office with their input.  Nothing about a CX forbids public participation.  Sure, some BLM offices may act like it does, but they’re wrong. Call them on it.  Make your BLM offices accountable.  If handled correctly by the agency (a long shot in this administration, I know), this ruling would not affect public participation or NEPA adequacy.

Sep 17, 2007 01:24 PM
"BUREAU OF LIVESTOCK & MINING" -- has changed little since James Watt.

We all know BLM geologists and other "technical professionals" who are so transparently pro-industry that it would laughable -- were it not so destructive to OUR public landscape.

If a "progressive" Demo administration ever takes office again, they should violently shake the Interior Dept. down to its last bestial lackey.

There is absolutely no accountability!
Sep 24, 2007 12:13 PM

As a wildland hydrologist who works for a federal land management agency with experience in the SW, I find this incredibly discouraging. Its the public who often provide the impetus for change and improvement in watershed/rangeland condition.  I've often been grateful for the input of those pesky non-profits and concerned citizens, even when it led to more work for me.  My voice inside the agency often isn't enough to make a difference, but the combined voices of the public (the true landowners of public land) can make a big difference.