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New grazing rules to help ranchers

/ Source: The Associated Press

The Bush administration, departing from Clinton-era restrictions on managing rangeland, on Friday proposed new rules aimed at helping livestock owners whose cattle range on public lands. Environmentalists feared the change would lead to damage of public lands by herds.

The new rules would give the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management two years, instead of one, to make grazing decisions needed to maintain healthy ranges.

“This proposal recognizes that ranching is crucial not only to the economies of Western rural communities, but also to the history, social fabric and cultural identity of these communities,” Interior Secretary Gale Norton said in a prepared statement.

Norton announced the proposal in a speech Friday to a convention of livestock owners in Albuquerque, N.M. She described the proposal as an attempt to improve grazing management and help continue public lands ranching in the rural West.

“This proposed rule will help public lands ranchers stay on the land,” Norton said in remarks prepared for her speech to the convention. “It will do that by creating a regulatory framework that lets ranchers succeed based on sound business judgment and sustainable ranching practices.”

Activists fear overgrazing
But the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, said it expects the proposal to mark a return to practices that have allowed decades of overgrazing and other unsustainable grazing practices. The group said “the clear and short deadline of one year for action is the first step to halt grazing damage.”

The new rules also would require more studies and monitoring any time the Bureau of Land Management evaluates whether health standards for rangeland are being met and reward livestock owners by letting them split ownership with the BLM for permanent improvements such as fences, wells and pipelines.

Other changes include:

Removal of the current limit of three consecutive years under which livestock operators can retain grazing permits but not make use of them. Operators would be allowed to apply for nonuse for up to one year at a time, for conservation or business purposes.

Elimination of long-term conservation-use grazing permits that department officials say were invalidated by a federal appeals court.

Clarify how the Bureau of Land Management authorizes grazing when a permit is postponed because of an administrative appeal.

‘Improve ... relationships’
BLM Director Kathleen Clarke, whose agency manages 261 million acres, said in remarks prepared for Friday that the proposed changes are “a major step forward” toward better rangeland management and will “improve the agency’s working relationships” with permit-holders.

About 160 million of those acres are authorized for grazing by some 18,000 permit- and leaseholders, but what is grazed is typically less because of drought, wildfires and business decisions.

“This proposed rule reflects our agency’s commitment to continue livestock grazing as one of the legitimate uses of the public lands,” Clarke said.

The proposal is to be published in the Federal Register on Dec. 8, and the BLM also plans to release a draft study of the proposal’s environmental impact later this month. The public is being given at least 60 days to comment on both.

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