Barrasso bill would double length of grazing permits

Reprinted with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. Not for republication by Wyoming media.

By Phil Taylor, E&E reporter

A Wyoming senator has reintroduced a bill that would double the length of grazing permits on millions of acres of public lands and instruct the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to issue routine permits more quickly.
Sen. John Barrasso’s (R) “Grazing Improvement Act” would also automatically extend permits that the agencies aren’t able to review before they expire.The bill’s introduction this week drew praise from livestock groups that said it would provide much-needed certainty for their businesses, but was panned by one environmentalist as a giveaway to ranchers at the expense of clean water and wildlife.

A version of Barrasso’s bill sponsored by Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) passed the House last Congress but stalled in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where it was opposed by Obama administration officials.

Barrasso yesterday said his bill would provide relief to ranchers whose activities have been attacked by lawsuit-happy environmental groups.

“These endless lawsuits, aimed at eliminating livestock from public lands, overwhelm the permitting process and hurt ranchers by jeopardizing much-needed grazing permits,” Barrasso said. “My bill will give our ranching communities the certainty and stability they need by extending permits and preserving grazing rights.”

Barrasso’s S. 258 would amend federal law to allow grazing permits to last 20 years. The agencies would also be given greater authority to issue categorical exclusions, which accelerate the review process. It would also institutionalize a legislative rider Congress has enacted for several years that extends expiring permits until agencies are able to officially review them.

“This bill would end some of the instability in the permitting process that plagues the grazing industry in the West,” said Brice Lee, a Colorado rancher who is president of the Public Lands Council.

But the bill last Congress was opposed by the Obama administration, a fact that could hamper its progress in the Democratic-led Senate. BLM’s then-Deputy Director Mike Pool said last March that the bill would limit public comment and hamstring the agency’s ability to protect the range. Leslie Weldon, deputy chief of the National Forest System, expressed similar concerns (E&E Daily, March 23, 2012).

Environmentalists are unlikely to support the bill. Many groups argue that grazing degrades water quality, can introduce invasive species and competes with native wildlife, and that it is a drain on taxpayer dollars.

Andy Kerr, a consultant who advises environmental groups, said grazing permits should not be issued for 20 years because the resource management plans on which they are based last for only 15 years.

“Federal law pertaining to grazing on public lands already provides sacred-cow status to elite and privileged ranchers,” said Kerr, who noted a Government Accountability Office finding that federal agencies lose $10 for every $1 paid in grazing fees. “The so-called Grazing Improvement Act would further elevate the exalted position of welfare ranchers at the public trough at the expense of the taxpayers, clean water and native wildlife.”

Pool said BLM manages about 17,750 livestock grazing permits and leases on more than 160 million acres of public lands in the West.

Due to a spike in permit renewal requests in 1999 and 2000, BLM by the end of fiscal 2012 expected to have a backlog of about 4,200 permits, Pool said. The agency for more than a decade has relied on a year-to-year appropriations rider to reissue grazing permits, Barrasso said.

On Forest Service lands, more than 6,800 individuals are permitted to graze livestock on 94 million acres.

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