Protections Being Gutted by Ranchers' Allies in Congress
Ranching interests and their allies in Congress, have attached a stealth “rider” to the annual Appropriations bill that would exempt grazing permits from review under our environmental laws. The rider which passed the House last week and is now before the Senate, would require the BLM and Forest Service to reissue permits unchanged regardless if the agency experts already know that the levels of grazing allowed on the old permits are causing damage. The rider has no schedule nor any requirement to ever do environmental review.
Ranchers and their allies argue that it is unfair that grazing permit reissuance should be “held up” solely because the bureaucracy cannot do environmental reviews in time. This view also appeared in the Sunday editorial of the Journal (Albuquerque Journal 7/21/2002).
This is a complete reversal of the whole purpose of environmental laws -- to assess environmental impacts of damaging actions before they happen, not after. This is just what industry wants. Mining, oil and gas and logging corporations are sure to be looking eagerly at what the ranchers are pulling off, asking -- how did they do it and how we can we do it too?
The myth pushed by industry is that environmental reviews are just a rubber stamp, just red tape. They say they should be allowed to continue what they are doing because "anyone" can see there is no harm done.
The reality is otherwise.
Less than 27,000 cattle ranchers and corporations graze livestock under 10 year permits on federal lands, covering one third of the entire western land area. Because livestock dominate so much land, environmental impacts are pervasive and severe. A 1994 Forest Service study found grazing to be the top cause of native species becoming endangered in the Southwest.
"Environmental” does not mean only “endangered species.” The law requires consideration of all aspects, including whether your house gets washed away in a flood, or burned down in a fire. Recent research has shown even light and moderate grazing results in significant soil compaction and erosion, resulting in more flooding, and less recharge of the water table. Adding to other mismanagement by the Forest Service, grazing has encouraged the growth of pine thickets, which is a root cause of the severe fires that plague the West.
The urgent need for review and changes in grazing permits is best illustrated by the Rodeo-Chedeski fire in Arizona. Five of eight Forest Service grazing allotments in the fire area had gone through recent reviews which found “overstocking and overutilization of vegetation.” This was found to have resulted in thickets of small pine trees that pose extreme risk for catastrophic fire. One Forest Service assessment for the Black Canyon allotment near Heber identified the problem as removal by livestock of “residual herbaceous material that both inhibits tree seedling establishment and that carries periodic fire which can thin and remove increased density of trees.” The assessment recommended thinning of pine thickets and a drastic reduction of livestock from 213 head down to 60.
Because of a rider granted by Congress in 1995, three other allotments including the largest in the area have not been reviewed and old grazing permits were reissued without change.
The pine thickets were created not only by overgrazing, but also by heavy logging in the area which aims at large trees, not the thickets. But they don’t go away just by stopping logging and grazing. Thinning projects are essential. With aggressive thinning and timely changes to grazing permits, the pine thickets might have gone away and not come back, and there may not have been such a devastating fire. However the new rider being pushed through Congress would abandon a mandatory schedule for reviews that was part of the 1995 rider.
If agencies lack funds for environmental review Congress could immediately put more money into it, and increase the ridiculously low grazing fee. Instead the House voted last week to cut the Forest Service budget and the grazing fee has been stuck at eight times less than market levels because of the filibustering of ranchers’ allies in Congress. This sends a clear signal that the DC politicans could care less about the fallout of industrial abuse on our public lands, and could care less about the root causes of environmental problems like the fires, preferring to scapegoat environmentalists instead.