Hearings and Business Meetings

SD-366 Energy Committee Hearing Room 02:30 PM

Mike Byrne

Mr.

 

Statement by the

PUBLIC LANDS COUNCIL

 and the

NATIONAL CATTLEMEN’S BEEF ASSOCIATION

 

on

Livestock Grazing on Public Lands


Submitted to the

Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests

The Honorable Larry Craig, Chairman

of the

Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources

Pete Domenici, Chairman

 

by

Mr. Michael Byrne

September 28, 2005

 

 
Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee, thank you for this opportunity to discuss the issues facing ranchers throughout the western United States.  My name is Mike Byrne, and I am a cattle rancher from northern California and President of the Public Lands Council, a national organization representing the interests of public lands ranchers.  My brother Dan and I are fourth generation ranchers in the same area. 

The Public Lands Council (PLC) represents sheep and cattle ranchers in 15 western states whose livelihood and families have depended on federal grazing permits dating back to the beginning of last century.  I am also here today on behalf of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), the trade association for America’s cattle farmers and ranchers, and the marketing organization for the largest segment of the nation’s food and fiber industry.  Both PLC and the NCBA strive to create a stable regulatory environment in which our members can thrive and continue to produce the safest and most nutritious meat in the world.

The federal government manages over 450 million acres of land, and nearly 300 million acres are classified as rangelands.   Since the mid-19th Century, ranchers have depended on the vitality of America’s rangelands for their survival, and as a result, ranchers have developed an innate love for the land and personal stake in its preservation.   Nearly 40% of all cattle raised in the west spend some of their lives on public land allotments.  The public lands are critical to the functioning of the livestock industry in the west.  Environmental services provided by ranching operations include open spaces, wildlife habitat, clean air, clean water, and fire and weed control. 

Today’s ranchers represent some of America’s last living embodiments of true environmentalism.  The American public and the ranching industry benefit tremendously from the continued economic vitality of the public land ranching industry.   As we look to the future of public lands ranching throughout the west, the Public Lands Council is concerned about a number of important issues.


National Environmental Policy Act
The Public Lands Council owes a debt of gratitude to this Congress for its attention to grazing issues on Public Lands.  In recent years, Congress has made more funding  available for monitoring of allotments, has ensured that permit renewals would not be set aside because of the agencies’ inability to complete their responsibilities under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and has worked to restore a balance between wild horse and burros and other multiple uses.  For these things, we applaud you.

Much work remains to be done.  Grazing permit administration remains a challenge that trips up the agencies.  Our understanding is the agencies are not processing enough permits to meet the schedule Congress anticipated when it enacted legislation to postpone the deadline for completing NEPA for permit renewals.  When it tries to do the NEPA it also fails with sometimes disastrous consequences for our industry. 

In the recent case of Western Watersheds Project versus the Bureau of Land Management, the court enjoined grazing on several hundred thousand acres of land in southeast Idaho, involving almost 100,000 animal unit months, and 28 allotments because the agency failed to meet basic requirements under NEPA.  In the view of our members, a significant portion of the grazing industry in southeast Idaho, and the families and communities that depend on it, was overturned through the court injunction because the government failed to complete its paperwork. 

This cannot be allowed to be the standard of business for the government.  Businesses, families, communities cannot fail because the government cannot complete paperwork that does little to affect conservation on the ground, and certainly adds little to a ranching operation.   The Public Lands Council strongly supports the multiple use sustained yield of public lands and the related consideration of environmental factors in processing grazing permits.  We also strongly believe that a more sensible balance must be struck between environmental paperwork and actual conservation as this dynamic relates to grazing. 

Part of the agencies’ challenge in completing environmental documentation can be addressed by more closely tailoring the paperwork requirements to the actual environmental profile presented by grazing or an activity ancillary to grazing.  For example, it seems irrational to produce full-scale NEPA documentation for longstanding continuing activities that have long-ago made their imprint on the landscape.  Once the environmental baseline has been established in environmental analysis, and no new information emerges, what sense does it make to spend scarce federal resources on additional NEPA documentation?  We strongly urge this Committee to consider enacting legislation that provides for categorical exclusions to be available for such classes of grazing activities.

We also believe that categorical exclusions should be made available for range improvements such as installation of fencing or water facilities.  These activities have a minimal impact on the land but can play a critical role in putting in place a well-managed grazing program resulting in important benefits for the resources. 


National Historic Preservation Act
Similar issues arise with the intersection of grazing with the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) as with NEPA.  Federal land managers have used the NHPA to block or significantly delay grazing in areas where grazing has taken place for years and where no cultural artifact of any significance has ever been identified. 

A significant part of the land on which my cattle run have been overtaken by invasive juniper trees.  These trees turn grasslands into fields of dirt eliminating habitat for wildlife, and forage for cattle.  Removal of junipers is considered to be a key practice for helping to restore habitat for the sage grouse.  Juniper encroachment on western landscapes is of epidemic proportions.  Again, NHPA has been invoked to block my effort to clear the junipers from my federal allotments.  All Americans appreciate the importance of preserving our cultural heritage.  Still, ranchers and undoubtedly most Americans would have a hard time understanding how this Act can be used to block activities that would clearly benefit the resource, particularly in the absence of any information indicating that cultural significant resources are present in the area proposed for juniper clearing. 


Wild and Scenic Rivers
Americans are rightfully proud of the many beautiful rivers that course through our nation.  Unfortunately, as things so often happen, management of these rivers, and particularly those with segments that have been designated under the Wild River and Scenic Act, has brought harm to other segments in society, in this case the state’s rural ranching communities.  A better balance between ranching and river protection needs to be struck under the Act.   

The Wild and Scenic River Act protects existing uses along designated river corridors, such as grazing.  However, the Act also requires these existing uses to protect and “enhance” the values for which the river corridors were designated under the Act.  PLC and NCBA believes that properly managed grazing can be compatible with maintaining healthy river corridors.  Many of the rivers currently designated achieved their status with years of grazing on their sides. 

Unfortunately, as interpreted by the courts, the “enhance” standard in the Act poses a virtually impossible hurdle for grazing to meet.  This is a national issue in scope as there are more than 1.2 million acres included in the Wild and Scenic River system in the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land throughout the west.  Very roughly, it has been estimated that permitted grazing may occur on one-third of these acres.  In each instance in which environmentalists have brought suit challenging grazing management plan for corridors along rivers designated under the Act, grazing has been eliminated.

In Oregon alone, environmentalists have brought suit challenging grazing under the Wild and Scenic River Act on the Donner und Blitzen, the John Day, the Malheuer, and the Owyhee Rivers.  More than 50 operations ran cattle along the subject area of the Donner und Blixen, Owyhee, and Malheur Rivers, involving hundreds of people if you consider that each operation often consisted of several different families.  Elimination of these ranch operations means the elimination of a way of life that has been in place for generations in many cases.  Without the ranches and their economic activity, the local communities obviously suffer as well, and ultimately the fabric of life in rural Oregon and throughout the west.

The original congressional sponsors of the Oregon Omnibus Wild and Scenic Rivers Act certainly believed grazing would continue in the wild and scenic river corridors and communicated this belief to the local ranching community.  Congressman Bob Smith explained that he was seeking to ensure the maintenance of the grazing status quo along the river, in a letter to Senator Mark Hatfield dated August 29, 1988.  Congressman Peter DeFazio wrote that “grazing and Ag practices are fully protected under the Act,” in a letter dated September 28, 1988.  Senator Hatfield wrote on October 3, 1988, that grazing under the Oregon legislation would be allowed “to the extent currently practiced.”  Senator Bob Packwood wrote on January 13, 1989, to assure a constituent that grazing “will not be affected by this [new] law.”

PLC and NCBA ask this Committee to bring a better balance between grazing and river protection to the Wild and Scenic River Act in line with the expectations of congressional authors of wild and scenic river legislation for Oregon.  The people whose lives are rooted in rural Oregon deserve the respect and attention of this body.  The law should prevent degradation of river values.  It should also prevent degradation and harm to rural families and communities in Oregon and throughout the west.  We would be pleased to work with the members of this committee to bring a better balance to the Act.


Wilderness Study Areas
PLC and NCBA understands, even if we do not support, the interest in part of the public in creating new wilderness areas in the west.  As much as we oppose the creation of additional areas removed from multiple use management, we even more oppose the way wilderness study areas are administered.  It is a fundamental abuse of the law and should be stopped.  

Federal agencies law provides for the designation of wilderness study areas for periods of ten years after which the administration is to make a recommendation to congress whether to establish a wilderness in that area.  In practice, once an area has been designated for study, it is managed as a defacto wilderness past the time limit on the study period. 

If Congress intends to restrict access to still another class of lands, it should debate the issue and pass a law to this effect.  Until that time, the authority to create study areas suggests that the appropriateness of creating a new wilderness area will be studied, and then at some point a decision will be made whether to do so or not.  The law needs to be clarified as to Congress’ intent for the treatment and disposition of these areas.  We also ask Congress to release those areas for which the study periods have expired. 


Bureau of Land Management Grazing Regulations
We are grateful to the BLM and this administration for considering grazing in a systematic manner and nearly completing grazing regulations that help restore the balance of multiple uses on public lands.  As are many, we are concerned with the delay in their issuance.  We urge this Committee to monitor the situation and do all it can to ensure the regulations are issued as expeditiously as possible. 

 

Endangered Species Act
The number one resource priority for PLC and NCBA federal lands members is to reform the Endangered Species Act.  Livestock producers are concerned with minimizing the red tape associated with species protection and maximizing conservation efforts on the ground.  We would like to see a greater focus on the recovery of species.  If a species must be put on the list, there should be at least a concerted effort made to identify the criteria needed to recover the species and then take them off the list.  We want these efforts to be based on reliable information, not the biases of individual federal officials. 

A significant effort has been made to pass ESA legislation in the House.  We will learn tomorrow whether this effort succeeds.  The effort in the Senate has moved at a slower pace.  Anything the members of this Committee can do to speed the process in the Senate will be greatly appreciated by our members.