September 7, 2007

Free range

by B. Christine Hoekenga
High Country News ONLINE

Livestock foraging on 160 million acres of public lands could roam more freely than ever, thanks to a recent policy change at the Bureau of Land Management. On Aug. 14, the BLM granted eight new “categorical exclusions,” designed to speed up the approval process for a slew of activities on public lands, including grazing, logging, oil and gas drilling and recreational use.

Among the major changes is a paring down of the renewal process for the roughly 18,000 grazing permits the agency administers. Previously, when a permit was up for renewal, the BLM was obliged to conduct a formal environmental assessment and call for public comments under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), giving the average citizen an open invitation to speak up.

Now, under the new guidelines, if a grazing allotment appears to be in good shape and the permit is being renewed for roughly the same use as before, the agency may approve the renewal without a rigorous environmental assessment – or formal public comment.

It’s this last part that has environmentalists worried. Bobby McEnaney, public-lands advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, is concerned about losing the eyes and ears of the public in the renewal process. “There have been a number of cases around the West where an individual citizen has pointed out a sage grouse lek or salmon habitat (on grazing lands), and the BLM has made a change,” he says. “The key fatal flaw is that public input will not be valued in this process.”

Others welcome the new procedures. Jeff Eisenberg, director of federal lands for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, believes that the changes will allow the under-funded BLM to be more efficient. Federal land management agencies have an enormous job and not enough resources, he says: “When they are scrambling around and can’t do their work adequately, that makes it hard for us.”

For several years, the cattlemen’s association has supported changes that would streamline grazing permit renewal. Resolutions in its annual policy books dating back to 2003 recommend that the BLM and Forest Service allow the public to have a say only in larger-scale decisions, not in the nitty-gritty of individual grazing permits.

And it appears that the association’s wish has been granted, at least partially. According to BLM estimates, approximately one-third of the roughly 2,300 permits that are renewed each year will be eligible for the new fast-tracked approval. Even so, a determined individual can still find ways to get involved in individual allotment decisions, according to Bob Bolton, a senior rangeland management specialist with the BLM. People can visit their local BLM offices to request information, express concerns or appeal a permit renewed under a categorical exclusion, he says. The agency will notify those who make this extra effort about decisions affecting the allotments in question.

It’s hard to tell whether the changes will ultimately harm public lands, says Sherman Swanson, a rangeland management extension specialist with the University of Nevada, Reno. As with other procedural changes issued by federal agencies, much depends on how the new rules are implemented. “If the opportunity to do a categorical exclusion allows them to go through another round (of permit renewals) without making changes where they need to,” he says, “then it is simply a pressure valve, and we haven’t accomplished much.”