Public Land Management Criticized

GAO: Extent of Unauthorized Grazing Unknown

Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
A GAO study raises questions about how federal agencies deal with unauthorized grazing on federal lands. These longhorns were legally grazing at a Nebraska state park last week. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

OMAHA (DTN) -- The U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service don't have a good handle on the extent of unauthorized grazing on public lands. Unauthorized grazing has been found to cause a number of environmental problems.

A new Government Accountability Office report was critical of how federal agencies track and enforce unauthorized grazing on BLM and Forest Service lands. In addition, the GAO said there are questions as to whether penalties for unauthorized grazing are effective.

"The frequency and extent of unauthorized grazing on BLM and Forest Service lands are largely unknown because according to agency officials the agencies prefer to handle most incidents informally and do not record them," GAO said.

GAO said there were nearly 1,500 incidents of unauthorized grazing where formal action was taken by the agencies between 2010 and 2014.

"Agency field staff told us that most incidents they identify are handled informally," GAO said, and is the preferred practice of agency staff. As a result, however, the report said the agencies are not tracking the incidents as well as they could.

"Agency field staff told us that unauthorized grazing can severely degrade the range under certain conditions, such as drought, and also told us of other effects, such as creating conflicts between the agencies' staff, ranchers, and other stakeholders," GAO said.

"During our field visits, we observed locations where unauthorized grazing had resulted in severely damaged natural springs, overgrazed meadows and trampled streambeds. Agency field staff provided photographs showing unauthorized grazing in protected habitat areas and the effects of overgrazing from unauthorized use."

The GAO found evidence penalties for unauthorized grazing may be ineffective.

"Based on information from the agencies' databases, BLM and the Forest Service collected nearly $450,000 for unauthorized grazing in grazing years 2010 through 2014," the report said.

"Agency staff and cattlemen's association representatives told us that the agencies' policies for modifying permits, such as reducing the number of permitted livestock for an allotment or suspending or canceling the permits, are likely to be the greatest deterrent to unauthorized grazing, in part because they directly affect the permittees' livelihoods.

"While not provided for under the regulations, most agency field staff told us that informal resolution is the most effective way to achieve the objective of quickly resolving non-willful unauthorized grazing with minimal conflict, and is the most efficient use of their time given multiple higher-priority responsibilities."

BLM Hearing

Western land interests are concerned a newly proposed rule by the federal government will take away local control of land use management decisions on public lands. Those fears were aired during a House Subcommittee on Natural Resources hearing Thursday.

Subcommittee members expressed concerns that a new management plan for public lands being drafted by the Bureau of Land Management would centralize decision-making at BLM and marginalize local officials.

BLM manages roughly 250 million acres of public lands, concentrated in Western states and Alaska.

A number of Western land interests, as well as state government officials had asked the agencies for at least a 120-day extension of the comment period on the February 2016 proposal that changes procedures used to prepare, revise or amend land use plans. The comment period was extended by 30 days, but ended in May.

Chuck McAfee, a Montezuma County, Colorado, landowner who is a neighbor to BLM land, told the House subcommittee Thursday local communities need to be involved in how land is managed.

"I am completely supportive of enabling as much public involvement as possible, as early as possible, in planning for public lands," he said in written testimony to the committee. "We understand the relationships among public lands and agricultural lands. As you can see in the submission from some of other local farmers, we are both affected by decisions on public lands and care deeply about them as part of our community. We want our voices to be listened to and heard...

"If the BLM truly values local stakeholders and the way that we interact with public lands, it must consider how the people, wildlife and use of our public lands impact our farms and other private lands."

One of the overarching concerns critics of the BLM plan have is it would shift away resource management plan development from the local level to the BLM management level.

According to a memorandum posted on the House committee's website, the BLM director would have wide latitude to determine the area covered by a Resource Management Plan "without any state or local involvement."

Kathleen Clarke, director of the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, told the committee she opposes the rule because state and local officials often have more expertise than federal agencies.

"County commissioners are able to articulate the interests of the people they have been elected to represent," she said. "While the system is not perfect, Utah has many examples of truly effective cooperation between the BLM and state and local governments that has resulted in workable compromises and practical solutions that are good for both the land and the people."

One of the major concerns about the proposed rule, Clarke said, is a movement toward landscape-scale management.

"This is planning on a large scale that may extend across state borders," she said.

"Planning areas will not be fixed as they are now, but will be established arbitrarily by BLM officials."

Clarke cited a number of examples including a Great Basin Resource Management Plan that includes portions of both Utah and Nevada. A Colorado Plateau Resource Management Plan could include three or four different states, she said.

"This sort of multi-state management will force the BLM to juggle consistency with several different state land-use plans," Clarke said.

"The biggest losers from this proposal will be state governments and the actual landscapes, which require highly localized and fine-tuned management."

Jim Lyons, deputy assistant secretary of Land and Minerals Management U.S. Department of the Interior, told the committee the rule will provide for public input early in the process of updating land-use plans. The changes, he said, are designed to cut delays in approving plans and reduce the chances of litigation.

Read the GAO report here: http://bit.ly/…

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @toddneeleyDTN

(CC/AG)

Todd Neeley