Thursday, July 19, 2012

Editorial: Ranchers smolder over limits

    As wildfires blackened more than 1 million acres of the West last week, the debate over grazing on public land took on greater urgency and meaning.
    It also provided several faces to the debate. Meet Jeanette Yturriondobeitia. She and her husband, Richard, have a ranch in southeastern Oregon, near the town of Basque, population 10.
    They own the 12-Mile Ranch, which has borne much of the brunt of the 512,000-acre Long Draw wildfire -- the largest in recent Oregon history -- that roared across the region last week. They have lost 130 cattle and ranch structures -- and they almost lost their house.
    "We came back from moving cattle in the middle of the night and found seven pumper trucks lined up defending our haystack and house," she told Capital Press reporter Dan Wheat.
    With that much land -- most of it used for grazing -- blackened, she wonders how they'll get through the rest of the year.
    "Every bit of our winter range and what's left of our summer range is burned," she said.
    The couple is a founding member of the Trout Creek Mountain Working Group, which formed in the 1980s and included other ranchers, state and federal agencies and several environmental groups. Together, they agreed to reduce grazing on federal allotments to allow fish and wildlife habitat to return to health.
    The area had been overgrazed, but in the intervening 30 years the wildlife habitat has returned to health and even the population of rare Lahontan cutthroat trout has more than doubled, to 24,000.
    In light of their success they have been talking with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the federal land in the area, about increasing their grazing. More grazing would not only allow the them and their neighbors to run more cattle, it would maintain the habitat and, just as importantly, reduce the amount of grass that fuels wildfires.
    Rangeland experts say properly managed grazing benefits the land and habitat. State and federal land managers agree, but are constantly harassed by some environmental groups, which cling to the notion that any grazing only spreads weeds and hurts wildlife habitat. They say cheatgrass, which can be spread by livestock, displaces native grasses that naturally resist fire.
    For that and other reasons, they oppose virtually any grazing. Their goal is to convince the government to buy out grazing allotments across the West.
   The problem for the environmental groups is that a lack of grazing could be worse for wildlife than properly managed grazing, just as no logging can be worse for forest ecology than properly managed logging.
    As was proved by the Trout Creek group in Oregon and other similar groups across the West, wildlife habitat, streams and fish populations do thrive alongside grazing.
    The sage grouse is of particular concern to all Westerners, particularly those who ranch. The bird, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act, lives in 11 Western states and two Canadian provinces. As a "candidate" species for federal protection, it poses a threat to grazing because it lives in sage brush.
    Agencies such as the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the BLM have formed initiatives and working groups with ranchers to make sure the grouse populations remain healthy.  They know that properly managed grazing will benefit the grouse and its habitat.
    Wildfires also devastate wildlife habitat. Because cattle and sheep eat the grasses that fuel wildfires, more grazing could have reduced the severity of the blazes that scorched vast swaths of prime sage grouse habitat last week in Oregon, southern Idaho and elsewhere.
    Meet Jared Brackett. He is the Idaho Cattle Association's vice president and ranches near Castleford, Idaho, where about 219,000 acres burned in the Kinyon Road fire.
    He told Capital Press reporter Sean Ellis he is "extremely upset, disappointed and frustrated" that extra fuel -- grass that cattle grazing could have reduced -- was allowed to remain in the Jarbidge Resource Management Area, part of which the massive fire blackened.
    "When you're only utilizing 5 to 10 percent of the resource, this is what happens," he said. "We're trying to help this bird out but they keep saying grazing is a threat to it. Well, fire is a greater threat."
    He is correct.
    Resource and rangeland managers know that cattle and wildlife can get along. They also know that ranchers are willing participants in efforts to protect and improve habitat and reduce wildfire dangers.
    But the extreme environmentalists and their lawyers disagree. They want grazing stopped, no matter that it helps the environment and wildlife such as the sage grouse. As long as they can use the deeply flawed Endangered Species Act to stop grazing, they'll do it.
    Maybe those environmental groups should think about filing another lawsuit. Maybe they should sue themselves for damaging the sage grouse's habitat by opposing more grazing.
    Just a thought.

Capital Press

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Ben Nelson Goes Cow (Fees) Tipping

When outgoing Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) announced last month that he was pushing to reduce America's national deficit by reducing "welfare ranching" in America's heartland, so quiet was the political response in Washington that you could practically hear the crickets chirping along the Potomac. Undaunted, Sen. Nelson last Wednesday went one step further, announcing that he has introduced an eminently level-headed "Fair Grazing Fee" bill, designed to require the various agencies of the executive branch to charge market-level grazing fees for private ranchers who are running livestock on public land.
More crickets in Washington. But not on the ranches and farms of the nation's vast ranch lands. And certainly not in Nebraska. There, Sen. Nelson's new initiative is a very big deal for many different reasons. After all, it's not every day when an elected official, in the selfless pursuit of a common good, bucks up against the power of entrenched special interests and ... wait, wait, what's that? Sen. Nelson pitched his plan not just out of pure deficit-minded selflessness but because Republican nominee Deb Fischer, running this fall for the seat he is vacating, is herself a current beneficiary of "welfare ranching?"
Here's how the Omaha World-Herald Leader put it last month: "The family of Republican Senate nominee Deb Fischer leases 11,724 acres of federal land in north-central Nebraska for about $4,700 for seven months -- by some estimates about $110,000 less than the market rate for leasing private land in Cherry County." Combine such a sweetheart deal with a GOP candidate whose campaign so far has focused upon deficit reduction and wasteful Washington spending and, presto! The Democrats have themselves a campaign theme with some measure of traction.
Sen. Nelson puts it another way. It's not a story about Washington picking on the ranching industry, you see; it's about inequality within that industry itself. Sen. Nelson says he isn't just sticking up for the hundreds of millions of Americans who would like to see their public land leased at market rates. He says he is also sticking up for the vast majority of ranchers who for one reason or another do not receive the benefit of federally subsidized ranching fees. Last week, the senator explained it this way to local journalists:
I have offered an Amendment to help pay for the Jobs Bill, an Amendment that will bring fairness to America's ranchers and all taxpayers. My Amendment will require the US Forest Service and the Federal Bureau of Land Management to charge market value to those who graze livestock on public lands. As you probably know, an elite group of ranchers, I call them the 'two-percenters,' they currently receive about $140 million a year in federal subsidies to graze livestock on publicly-owned land. In these hard economic times, taxpayers shouldn't be padding the pocketbooks of the elite two-percent who get a special deal that 98% of ranchers don't.
And here's more from his website:
... The State of Nebraska charges over $20 dollars a head of calf to graze on state land. Why should the federal government charge $1.35?... Let's go through some numbers. All the grazing fees on federal lands add up to about $21 million dollars. But it costs the federal government $140-some million dollars to take care of those lands. In other words, there is a shortfall of $120 million dollars coming from two percent of ranchers. If I'm one of the 98 percent, I'm going to say 'that's not fair." That's why this is a matter of tax fairness.
In this day and age, who could be against "tax fairness"? Certainly not Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska senator and governor who is running (against Fischer) for Nelson's soon-to-be-empty seat. "I believe the free market should set the prices for grazing on federal land," Kerrey said last month in a press release after Nelson first announced his pitch. "Giving generous subsidies to a small number of ranchers isn't fair to the vast majority of ranchers who don't have this grazing privilege. Further, it isn't fair to the taxpayers who are subsidizing this form of welfare.
What do Fischer and her fellow Republicans think of Sen. Nelson's bright idea? I'll let the Lincoln Journal Star pick up the story from here:
The Nebraska Democratic Party launched a new TV ad campaign Monday accusing Republican Senate nominee Deb Fischer of accepting millions of dollars in "taxpayer subsidies";at the same time, she calls for reduced federal spending. "Think you know Deb Fischer?" the attack ad asks. "Well, behind her rhetoric is a lot of bull. Tell welfare rancher Deb Fischer to cut wasteful spending, not profit from it."
Democrats clearly have decided Fischer's participation in a federal livestock grazing rights program that benefits her own family ranch may be a chink in her conservative, cost-cutting armor they might be able to exploit. Sen. Ben Nelson and Bob Kerrey, her Democratic Senate opponent, already have questioned Fischer's acceptance of what they describe as federal subsidies that result from charging below-market fees for cattle grazing rights on U.S. Forest Service land.
"Ranchers are required to pay for additional maintenance costs and abide by strict federal regulations in exchange for leasing the land," Fischer campaign spokesman Daniel Keylin said. Republican Sen. Mike Johanns, a former U.S. secretary of agriculture, already has said it was misleading to describe the program as a subsidy, Keylin pointed out. Johanns said the lease requires substantial activity by a rancher in return for limited use of the land. Republican state Chairman Mark Fahleson branded the ads an act of desperation.
An act of desperation, perhaps. But that doesn't make Sen. Nelson's plan bad national policy. Indeed, regardless of its local-political overtones, and regardless of the senator's motives in promoting it, making federal grazing fees at least match the market rate is sound and equitable policy that deserves serious consideration on Capitol Hill. The fact is, for the past 75 years, "welfare ranching" has eroded public resources for the benefit of an industry that gladly accepts the federal dole at the same time it is blasting Washington for its largesse.
Just ask the folks at the Center for Biological Diversity, a group dedicated (among other things) to the conservation of public lands. The Center's Public Land Campaigns Director, Taylor McKinnon, quickly praised the Nelson plan. "The grazing subsidy is America's upside-down public-lands policy," McKinnon told me last Friday. "Each year it costs the public hundreds of millions of dollars while enabling public-lands grazing that erodes soil and destroys wildlife habitat. Reform makes perfect economic and environmental sense. It's long overdue."
Overdue -- and clearly not a priority so far for the Obama Administration, which has stubbornly refused to expend any political capital on this issue. Here's what McKinnon had to say about the executive branch's contemporary approach to the problem of "welfare ranching" and its insidious subsidization:
We've both petitioned and sued the Obama Administration seeking a significantly fairer fee, but they resist change. So after years of their skulking and cowering, it's refreshing to see someone with guts enough to tell the truth and demand a discussion about real reform.
"Real reform" can come from many different places and for many different reasons. Maybe Sen Nelson is, as McKinnon suggests, just being gutsy for pitching his plan now. Maybe he is, as Nebraska's Republicans contend, just being ballsy on his way out. Either way, and whomever wins or loses the Senate race for his seat in Nebraska, fair grazing fees and the end of "welfare ranching" is a good idea whose time, finally, has come. As the senator himself put it, "$1.35 per cow is too darn low." Darn right it is.


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Western Watersheds Project Acts: Grand Staircase Escalante National Monumen

Western Watersheds Project Acts:  Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
~ Jonathan Ratner , Wyoming Director

Last week, Western Watersheds Project filed suit against the Bureau of Land Management for failing to act to protect the precious resources of the Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument (GSENM) from the damages of livestock grazing.

The monument was established by President Clinton in 1996 on 1.9 million acres of BLM land containing stunning geologic formations and unique ecosystems.  The proclamation required that the new Monument be managed beyond the usual 'multiple use' approach taken by the BLM.
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

Its mandate:

First and foremost, the Monument will remain protected in its primitive, frontier state. The BLM will safeguard the remote and undeveloped character of the Monument, which is essential to the protection of the scientific and historic resources. Second, the Monument will provide opportunities for the study of scientific and historic resources.

However, 16 years after the Monument was established, the BLM has not even gotten around to put in place a management framework to deal with livestock grazing in light of the purposes for which the Monument was established. Instead of managing the GSENM better than the rest of BLM lands, befitting a National Monument, the BLM failed to even comply with its own national grazing regulations.

Case in point: In 2006, the BLM conducted Rangeland Health Assessments across the Monument and found 21 allotments or more than half the Monument failing Rangeland Health Standards due to livestock. Rather than address these failings, BLM buried the assessments. When word leaked out, BLM was forced to provide all 21 determinations to the public. However, the BLM is also required under its own regulations to take actions to correct Rangeland Health failures before the start of the next grazing season, but in this case, 6 years have ticked by and the BLM has not worked to correct the problems and reverse the degradation that is occurring.

On July 6th, with the representation of Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal, WWP filed litigation in Washington D.C. to force the agency to implement the actions that the BLM itself determined were necessary to stop grazing damage to this national treasure. The land shouldn't have to wait any longer.

Many thanks to Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal, Dr. John Carter, Dr. Jim Caitlin of Wild Utah Project, and WWP's Laura Welp for helping to bring these problems to light!