Grazing reform: A plan to chew on

  Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt launched his second attempt at grazing reform last month, issuing a giant 224-page draft plan to revamp grazing practices on 170 million acres of Bureau of Land Management rangeland.


Like his initial proposal last summer, the revised plan would double grazing fees and tighten environmental regulations. But, in a major departure, Babbitt also is proposing to give local ranchers and environmentalists a key role in the implementation of the new grazing rules.


It's a groundbreaking proposal, and for Babbitt, a major gamble. However, early indications are that it would do little to end the grazing wars.


Despite cautious support from most Western governors, Babbitt's compromise has already come under heavy fire from both Western livestock interests and national environmental groups. Both sides are churning out attack press releases and vying for headlines. Public hearings on the plan - tentatively scheduled to occur simultaneously in 10 Western states on June 7 - may well turn into a series of slugfests.


To get beyond the rhetoric, here are the nuts and bolts of the draft regulations.


Grazing Fees: Over the next three years, fees to graze livestock on BLM lands would double, from $1.98 per animal unit month today, to $2.75 in 1995, $3.50 in 1996 and $3.96 in 1997. (An animal unit month is the amount of forage consumed by a cow-calf pair in a month.)


That is below the $4.28 per AUM grazing fee initially proposed by Babbitt, and higher than the $2.43 per AUM alternative backed by ranchers. Interior must analyze the impact of the increased fees after each year. If there are significant negative impacts, the fees would be reevaluated, but the mechanism to do that is not spelled out in the plan.


Incentives: The proposal would allow a grazing fee discount of 30 percent, to $2.77 per AUM, to ranchers whose stewardship exceeds the BLM's environmental regulations. The criteria to determine who qualifies for the discount would be established in a future process. Until then, Interior has promised not to enforce the third year of fee increases.


Standards and Guidelines: For the first time ever, the federal government would require ranchers who graze public lands to meet specific environmental standards and guidelines. In the initial draft, these would have been national criteria. In the new plan, Interior proposes that they be state guidelines, written and implemented in coordination with the state BLM offices and new Multiple Resource Advisory Councils established for each BLM district.


Each state's grazing requirements must be approved by the secretary and must meet broad national goals listed in the new proposal. Those goals are to enhance and protect rangeland ecosystems, riparian areas, water quality and threatened and endangered species.


In addition, each state must address technical issues such as soil stability, watershed functions, and vegetation targets, as well as evaluate grazing techniques such as fencing, rest and rotation, salting and supplemental feeding. States that do not produce an approved plan within 18 months would automatically be forced to use fallback standards included in the proposal.


Advisory Councils: The plan leans heavily on local public involvement, but from all sides. The BLM's old rancher-dominated grazing advisory boards would be abolished, to be replaced with 15 member Multiple Resource Advisory Councils.


The councils, incorporated at each BLM district office, would consist of five permittees, loggers, miners or other commodity interests active in the district; five representatives of environmental and conservation groups; and five members from other public-land users and state and local officials.


Members would be nominated by state governors and appointed by the secretary of Interior. All must have intimate knowledge of the area. The permittees and other commodity interests must work within the district; the environmental representatives need only to have a letter of recommendation from a legitimate environmental group that operates within the district or, if none do, within the state.


Council Authority: The councils would advise the BLM on all district range management decisions and help design their state's standards and guidelines. At the option of each state, the councils may also control a portion of the state's 25 percent share of federal grazing fee receipts.


To encourage consensus decision making, all actions taken by an advisory council must be approved by 75 percent of its members, as well as a simple majority of each of the three special-interest categories represented. The councils would also have the right to appeal BLM decisions directly to the secretary of Interior, but only by unanimous approval.


Rangeland Ecology Schools: To improve understanding of rangeland ecosystems, and to foster collaboration, all federal agents, permittees and Multiple Resource Advisory Council members would attend new schools, called Range Ecosystem Awareness Programs.


The schools would be independent, non-profit organizations governed by a separate board of trustees for each state. The structure and curriculum for these schools would be developed through a special public process, using the Colorado proposal as a starting place (HCN, 1/24/94).


Water Rights: The new plan clarifies several problems over water rights that proved a major stumbling block in Babbitt's first proposal. As proposed before, all new claims for water rights for grazing purposes on BLM lands would be held in public ownership, instead of the current practice of awarding water rights to ranchers. This guarantees, says Babbitt, that "the water will stay with the land," and that "any future permittee will have access to water, without having to pay the inflated rates that a private owner could charge."


The proposal also explicitly states that these changes would not affect valid existing rights, and would not change BLM policy on water rights for municipal, industrial or irrigation uses. All federal water rights must be administered under state laws, and no new federal reserved water rights would be created.


Range Improvements: Like water, ownership of all range improvements - fences, stock tanks, wells and other projects - would remain in federal hands, instead of being given to ranchers. This would not affect existing rights to range improvements, and ranchers would be compensated for any contributions they make.


Range Improvement Funds: Currently 50 percent of federal grazing fees are returned to BLM state and district offices. Traditionally, those funds were used for range improvement projects such as listed above. In the new plan, funds would be used primarily for ecosystem restoration, including projects for wildlife, watershed restoration and wetlands protection. Half of the money would go to the states and districts from which the fees were raised, and half would be allocated by the secretary.


Subleasing: Interior would levy a 20 to 70 percent surcharge on ranchers who sublease their allotments. However, leasing within one's family, to sons or daughters, would be exempt.


Prohibited Acts: The BLM would revoke grazing permits of any rancher convicted of violating federal laws such as the Bald Eagle Protection Act, the Wild Horse and Burro Act, the Migratory Bird Act, the Endangered Species Act and numerous other environmental laws.


Conservation Use: The proposal would allow environmental groups to buy grazing permits and "rest" their allotment for conservation purposes. Currently permittees forfeit their grazing rights if they do not use them. Other major issues for environmental groups, such as a review to remove unsuitable public lands from grazing, are not included in Babbitt's plan.


Tenure: Grazing permits would be good for 10 years. Babbitt's first proposal would have cut tenure to five years.


Enforcement: All decisions by BLM field officers, such as reducing grazing numbers, changing time of use or penalties for violations, would go into effect immediately, unless a rancher files an appeal and request for a stay. Under existing rules, a rancher can appeal and endlessly delay decisions. Under the new proposal the BLM must rule on a request for a stay within 75 days.


Affected Interests: Currently, only people or groups who can prove they have an affected interest can appeal a BLM range plan. Under the new proposal, any member of the public or any special interest group may participate in and appeal range decisions made by the BLM.





* Steve Hinchman





Copies of the draft regulations appeared in the Federal Register March 25, 1994, and are also available from your local BLM office. Otherwise, write to Rangeland Reform "94, Bureau of Land Management, Box 66300, Washington, DC 20035 (202/635-6753).