Lee Sanguinetti  /  AP file
Federal land like this area in California's Sierra Nevada mountains are often leased to ranchers for livestock grazing.
updated 6/17/2005 3:00:58 PM ET 2005-06-17T19:00:58

New rules for livestock grazing on 160 million acres of federal lands were welcomed by  ranchers but criticized by environmentalists.

The regulations issued Thursday by the Interior Department will require ranchers to either use the grazing lands they lease from the government or give up their permits so others can use them.

Any ranchers who leave acreage idle for more than a year could lose their grazing permits, which are generally issued for 10 years. The department’s Bureau of Land Management had been letting people keep the permits as long as they didn’t go more than three years without using the acreage for grazing.

Less idle time
“Conservation use” permits that let ranchers keep the land idle and ungrazed for up to 10 years will no longer be issued.

“What in the past may have been an acceptable rest rotation for two or three years — I think we’ve learned it may not be important to rest it for that time,” said Steve Pilcher, executive vice president for the Montana Stockgrowers Association.

Pilcher said managed grazing keeps grasslands healthier than leaving them idle because it stimulates plant growth. Plants deteriorate if they’re not grazed, he said.

BLM also will have to conduct additional studies and monitor any environmental degradation on acreage leased to ranchers before it stops grazing on it.

People who want to influence the BLM’s decision-making for specific grazing areas will have to remain active participants by providing comments to the agency. Otherwise, the agency will remove them from its list of “interested public” members who can be involved.

'Bad news,' says conservation group
Environmentalists said the Bush administration is trying to eliminate Clinton-era protections for public lands by allowing more time before harmful grazing can be stopped, and to reduce the amount of public input on grazing decisions.

“It’s bad news,” said John Horning, executive director of Forest Guardians, a conservation group, in Santa Fe, N.M. “It reinstates a 19th century mind-set, it creates a special class where cowboys and ranchers are the dominant users of our public lands.”

Tom Lustig, a lawyer for the National Wildlife Federation in Boulder, Colo., said the government is freezing out of the decisionmaking people other than ranchers who also use rangeland.

“If you’re a hunter, hiker or camper ... you’re no longer going to be involved in those decisions,” he said.

U.S. promises more vegetation
Interior officials, however, predicted long-term benefits to rangeland health will occur by improving relations with as many as 18,000 permit holders and leaseholders.

“Those benefits include increased vegetation along stream banks, which will reduce soil erosion and provide more habitats for wildlife,” said BLM Director Kathleen Clarke.

The ranges are part of the 261 million acres of public lands that BLM manages.

Ranchers pay a grazing fee on public lands managed by BLM or the Forest Service in 16 Western states. The annual fee is $1.79 for each amount of forage needed to sustain one cow and her calf, or one horse, or five sheep or goats for a month.

Officials adjust the forage rate each year to reflect changes in private grazing rates, cattle prices and costs of livestock production. But they can’t fall below $1.35 or change by more than 25 percent from the previous year’s rates.

Different grazing fees are charged by the Forest Service on national grasslands and other lands it manages in the East, Midwest and parts of Texas.

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