Livestock interests in the West are welcoming the Interior Department's proposed new federal rules for grazing on public lands, though they could cause some short-term harm to the environment.
The department's Bureau of Land Management released a draft environmental impact statement Friday that conceded "some short-term adverse effects" from the new rules could result among 160 million acres of public lands considered suitable for livestock grazing.
But what is grazed is considerably less than that due to drought, wildfires and business decisions. "The numbers are down because of that," said Vicki Olson of Malta, Mont., chair of the Montana Public Lands Council, a group of livestock grazers with federal land leases.
Cattle or subdivisions?
Olson called the proposed grazing rules a positive step, showing the government is willing to work with ranchers, and the rules could benefit both rancher and range.
"If I lease BLM land, I'm supposed to have enough private land to support those cattle when they're not on BLM land. That's one of the reasons we say this helps ranchers prevent urban sprawl," she said. "Because if they don't have the rangeland to run on in the summer, there's a possibility of them selling it for subdivisions."
BLM said some rangeland health might suffer initially during the transition to new rules, because the agency would have two years instead of one to make decisions and some of the changes would be phased in over five years.
But in the long-term, BLM said, "better and more sustainable grazing decisions would be the outcome ... and result in long-term positive effects on rangeland."
The proposed rules could affect as many as 18,000 permit and leaseholders spread among the 160 million acres for livestock grazing, part of the 261 million acres of public lands that BLM manages overall.
BLM said it could minimize damage to some of the lands that might result in the short-term after the rules took effect because it "could exercise authority ... to curtail grazing if imminent likelihood of significant resource damage exists."
The Bush administration says it hoped to help livestock owners whose cattle range on public lands when it announced in early December it was revising 1995 grazing rules issued during the Clinton administration.
Critics from several environmental groups say the administration is trying to overturn the 1995 rules to eliminate a variety of public lands protections, including ending the requirement for prompt action to address harmful grazing practices.
They complain the new rules would require years of monitoring before damaging practices could be ended, restrict public input on grazing decisions, give ranchers ownership of range modifications and let livestock owners buy water rights on public lands.
The proposed rules would remove the current limit of three consecutive years under which livestock operators can retain grazing permits but not make use of them. Operators could apply for nonuse for up to one year at a time.
They also would require more studies and monitoring any time BLM evaluates whether health standards for rangeland are being met. Livestock owners would be rewarded for making permanent improvements by sharing ownership of fences and wells with BLM.
Long-term conservation-use grazing permits would be eliminated, and BLM would clarify how it authorizes grazing when a permit is postponed because of an administrative appeal.