The National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the Public Lands Council filed comments on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' "interpretive" rule the group said Monday, arguing that it will make the Natural Resource Conservation Service a regulatory compliance agency and result in ranchers performing fewer conservation practices.
The interpretive rule was published in the Federal Register the same day as the agencies' proposed rule to redefine "waters of the United States" under the Clean Water Act.
The rule's intent is to interpret what Congress meant when it included a statutory exemption for "normal farming, silviculture and ranching activities" under the 404 Dredge and Fill Program.
"The EPA claims they have made right with the agricultural community by interpreting their exemption to only include the 'normal' 56 NRCS practice standards, excluding all other NRCS practice standards and all voluntary conservation activities," said Ashley McDonald, NCBA environmental counsel.
"By defining these very specific 56 practices, the interpretive rule only narrows the scope of what is considered normal farming and ranching practices. These practices, such as building a fence, or grazing cattle, never needed a permit before, but now require oversight by NRCS and mandatory compliance with its standards," she said.
With farmers and ranchers facing up to $37,000 per day in fines, the NCBA argues that the interpretive rule increases liability for participation in conservation practices, voluntary or not.
According to the EPA, the 56 exempted practices, including prescribed grazing, were chosen because they have the potential to discharge if they are done in a "water of the U.S." This effectively makes grazing a discharge activity, and cattle producers will now be required to obtain a permit to graze unless they have a NRCS-approved grazing plan, NCBA says.
"The chilling effect on participation in conservation activities will be compounded when NRCS is seen as wielding the final say on whether a producer is in violation of the Clean Water Act or not," said NCBA President, Bob McCan. "Historically, NRCS and its field personnel have been seen as a friend to agriculture; helping producers achieve goals in production and conservation through technical and financial assistance. Now, they will simply be an extended arm of the EPA, spending their time checking compliance of voluntary conservation activities."
NCBA and PLC strongly encourage the agencies to withdraw the interpretive rule immediately and ask that a dialogue be undertaken with the agricultural community prior to any future "interpretive" rules being promulgated that may alter the exemptions Congress included in the Clean Water Act for agriculture.