Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Simpson kills buyout for grazing permits

A potential federal grazing permit buyout program was killed by amendment last Thursday as Congressman Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, defended national public lands grazing during a subcommittee markup.

The stricken language, which was attached to the Interior and Environment Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2011, would have created a national pilot program to allow buyers to purchase and retire grazing permits from willing sellers.

"In the West, we know that if you don't graze on public lands, you don't graze at all," Simpson said.

Simpson has previously been engaged with the public grazing issue through his work on the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, or CIEDRA. CIEDRA proposes to designate some 330,000 acres of land in central Idaho as federal wilderness.

However, CIEDRA specifically provides for voluntary donation and retirement of grazing permits, which some see as contradictory to Simpson's latest move.

"Strange only begins to describe it," said Jon Marvel, executive director of the Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental group. "If you support grazing buyouts on one hand, but detest them on the other, something odd is going on."

Marvel and Western Watersheds have been involved in orchestrating the buyout of grazing permits, and Marvel said he doesn't understand Simpson's position on the issue.

The two programs, however, differ according to Simpson's staff.

"It's one thing to look at buyouts on a case-by-case basis," said Simpson spokesman John Revier. "It's quite another to look at a nationwide program that allows the highest bidder to retire perfectly good grazing lands."

According to Simpson's staff, when a rancher wishes to sell a grazing permit, there is an official bidding process in which interested parties, normally ranchers with neighboring land, compete for the permit.

A news release from Nikki Watts, Simpson's communication director, states that the proposed language would have allowed "environmental activist groups" to outbid such ranchers, obtain permits, and permanently retire them.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management currently reserves the right to terminate or cancel grazing permits on lands that have been severely impacted by heavy grazing.

Revier said it has become "virtually impossible" for ranchers in Idaho to graze on public land due to environmental regulations and lawsuits. The language in CIEDRA is aimed at providing compensation to ranchers with essentially useless permits, he said.

Simpson also added language to the appropriations bill that would enable the BLM to continue working through what Watts called a "backlog" of grazing permits that are up for renewal.

This backlog is created by old grazing permits, which come up for renewal every 10 years, and the several hundred new applications the bureau receives every year.

The language has been in the Interior appropriation's bill for each of the last 12 years, but was omitted this year until Simpson reintroduced it.

The funding allows the BLM to undertake the longer process of focusing on whether permits for environmentally sensitive areas should be renewed, rather than issuing renewals on a first-come, first-served basis.

The Interior and Environment Appropriations Act provides funding to the BLM and other land management agencies.

The bill was undergoing markup for fiscal year 2011 in the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.

Katherine Wutz:

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