The U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources committee passed the so-called Grazing Improvement Act, H.R. 657, designed to improve the livestock grazing permitting processes on lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, and extends the term of grazing permits from 10 to 20 years. The bill now makes its way to the full House.
U.S. cattle producers have called for the measure in response to what they say is a federal backlog on environmental analyses required on lands allotted for grazing every 10 years, in order to renew permits.
"Each year for more than a decade, because of a burdensome, backlogged regulatory process, federal lands ranchers have faced the risk of losing their grazing permits," the National Cattlemen's Beef Association said in a statement on its website.
"Unfortunately, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service have been overwhelmed with the workload, especially in light of the endless environmental litigation that seems aimed expressly at further botching the process and putting an end to grazing.
"Due to the backlog of environmental analyses, ranchers depend each year on the inclusion of language in the appropriations bill to assure that their grazing permits are renewed in a timely manner."
The act would codify the appropriations language that has been approved annually by Congress for more than a decade. It would provide stability and cost-efficiencies to the federal land management agencies.
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The act also would bolster the ability of those ranchers who hold permits to appeal unfavorable grazing decisions issued through the administrative procedure act.
Dustin Van Liew, Public Lands Council executive director and director of federal lands for NCBA said the act would help provide a stable business environment for federal lands ranchers who face "increasing uncertainty as to the future of their livestock grazing permits."
"Ranchers can no longer afford the incredible regulatory and litigious environment created by excessive application of NEPA," Van Liew said in a statement.
"If we lose ranchers, we lose the stewards of the land, job providers in the West and a crucial part of American livestock production."
Two amendments were offered during the committee's consideration of the bill. One amendment that passed would exempt range improvements from environmental review and clarify the intent of Congress with regard to who may appeal agency grazing decisions.
Van Liew said the amendment would "prevent radical environmental groups from abusing the current appeals system, and further reduce the NEPA burden."
He said the amendment was especially important at a time when wildfire has ravaged hundreds of miles of fence and many range improvements crucial to the proper care of livestock and the range.
A second amendment that was defeated would have imposed 74% increase in the federal lands grazing fee on ranchers.
Environmental groups like WildEarth Guardians opposed the act, instead supporting the "Rural Economic Vitalization Act" that would have authorized voluntary grazing permit retirement on 260 million acres of public land.
"Public lands livestock grazing is environmentally destructive, economically irrational, and fiscally wasteful," WEG Director Mark Salvo wrote in a statement posted on the group's website.
"Taxpayers spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually to support public lands grazing. Only 3% of ranchers in the U.S. hold a federal grazing permit and only one in five ranchers in the West. Only 2% of total livestock feed is supplied from federal public lands. Meanwhile, grazing is a leading cause of species imperilment and degraded water quality in the West."
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