Ranchers, Environmentalists Differ on New Grazing Rules

Strip away the jargon and clutter, and the Bureau of Land Management's new grazing regulations released last month come down to one basic thing -- making ranchers feel a little more at home on the public range.

Strip away the jargon and clutter, and the Bureau of Land Management's new grazing regulations released last month come down to one basic thing -- making ranchers feel a little more at home on the public range.

By streamlining regulations and requiring more evidence to prove grazing violations, the Bush administration has recast Clinton-era rules.

But it hasn't done anything to foster good will with environmentalists. Conservationists have assailed the new regulations for reducing the public's input into grazing decisions and eroding rangeland standards established under Clinton.

Still, BLM officials say relations with ranchers had deteriorated to the point that something had to be done.

"There has been a lot of unrest in the ranching community, so the agency, with the new regulations, is trying to improve that relationship," says Utah BLM spokeswoman Laura Williams. "In Utah, the relationship is really quite good, but this is a national issue, and there are issues that need to be addressed."

A draft of the new grazing rules released in mid-June is expected to be finalized later this month. The regulations rewrite is scheduled to take effect sometime in August.

By all accounts, the new rules are a hit with ranchers and other livestock interests, who often chafed at what they called unnecessary bureaucratic delays under the Clinton BLM.

"There used to be a lot of red tape," says Monty Weston, president of the Utah Cattlemen's Association. "Hopefully, we've gotten around that with the new regulations. I know it's better than what we had."

Carbon County rancher Rex Sacco says the new grazing rules will allow cattle and sheep owners more flexibility and reduce frustrating waits during public comment periods.

"We can do what we need to do in a quicker and more proficient manner," he said. "Sometimes when you wait on something that needs to be done on the land, you lose out."

Conservationists aren't buying it. They argue that the new regulations tip way too much in favor of the livestock industry.

Joe Feller, an Arizona State University law professor who does work for several environmental groups, including the National Wildlife Federation, says that the BLM has essentially muffled the public's voice on grazing matters. Interested citizens will still be able to review and have input on grazing plans and reports, he contends -- but not the decisions themselves.

"What they're really saying is, 'Look at our plans, but don't look at what we actually do," " Feller says.

He adds that BLM officials used to be able to step in and make quick assessments about damaged grazing areas. To make such assessments now, detailed rangeland analysis will be required.

"They're basically saying they won't enforce the standards unless they have certain types of data that prove a violation. Until there is proof, they won't act. So in effect, they have suspended the standards."

A different, and far more pointed criticism, comes from two retired BLM employees, who charged last month that the agency -- on orders from the Bush administration -- revised important chunks of the new regulations to make them more friendly to ranchers and livestock companies.

A government biologist and a hydrologist told the Los Angeles Times that their environmental analysis predicting the new rules would harm wildlife and water quality were removed and replaced with a rosier outlook.

"This is a whitewash. They took all of our science and reversed it 180 degrees," Erick Williams, a Nevada-based biologist with the bureau 30 years, told the newspaper.

BLM spokeswoman Williams says the revisions were part of standard rule-making. Erick Williams and hydrologist Bill Brookes were simply outvoted.

"Those two individuals had an opinion that the regulations would be bad for wildlife over the long term. But the rest of the team didn't agree, and went with their own decision," she says.

Ranchers don't see what all the fuss is about. The grazing standards themselves aren't changing.

Why would they purposely degrade their own grazing allotments when it's taken years to rehabilitate the range from previous decades of overgrazing?

"Ranchers have a financial investment in this land. We've got no place else to go with our animals if we don't take care of it," says Carbon County rancher Sacco. "If anybody thinks we don't want to see healthy land and wildlife, they're crazy. Degrading it is the last thing we want to do." Opponents of the new regulations don't see them as devastating public lands. But they do lament what they consider a lost opportunity.

"I'm not going to say that the rangelands are going to get a lot worse -- a lot of them were already degraded," says Feller. "But the Clinton idea was to recover some of these areas, and to a large extent, that's now not going to happen. They'll stay the same and they could get a little worse. They're not going to get much better."

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News