The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on Thursday approved a grazing measure that would extend the term for grazing permits from a minimum of 10 up to 20 years -- a provision two livestock and land management groups say provides for "added permit security."
The Public Lands Council and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association said the legislation, sponsored by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., codifies existing appropriations language, adding "efficiency to the federal grazing permit renewal process."
The groups explained that the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have carried a backlog of grazing permit renewals for more than a decade due to National Environmental Protection Agency assessments, which they say are "overwhelming and unnecessary."
The bill, in turn, provides sole discretion to the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture to complete the environmental analysis under NEPA while allowing for an analysis to take place at the programmatic level, the groups said.
"The act is vital for ensuring the fate of our producer's permits — livelihoods are depending on the efficiency of the system — which undoubtedly needs restructuring," said Scott George, NCBA president.
The bill will also allow categorical exclusions from NEPA for permits continuing current practices and for crossing and trailing of livestock, George explained.
"Additionally, it will allow for NEPA on a broad scale, reducing paper pushing within the federal agencies," he said.
The groups point out that the bill that passed was an amendment in the nature of a substitute which included "troubling language, creating a pilot program which would allow for limited 'voluntary; buyouts."
The buyouts, they said, are not actually market based, due to outside influence.
"Where voluntary relinquishment of a rancher's grazing permit occurs, grazing would be permanently ended. New Mexico and Oregon would be impacted — allowing for up to 25 permits in each state, per year to be 'voluntarily' relinquished," the groups explained.
"PLC strongly opposes buyouts — voluntary or otherwise," said Brice Lee, PLC president, adding that buyouts create an issue due to special interest groups who work to remove livestock from public lands.
"The language in the amendment addresses 'voluntary' buyouts; however, radical, anti-grazing agendas are likely at play," he said. "Litigation and persistent harassment serve as a way to eliminate grazing on public lands—and could force many ranchers into these 'voluntary' relinquishments, unwillingly. There can be no 'market based solution' in which any given special interest group is able to ratchet up ranchers' cost of operation, and artificially create a 'voluntary' sale or relinquishment."
Nevertheless, both Lee and George agree the bill is an indication that Senators from both parties are open to change, despite the buyout language.
"Passage out of committee is a feat in itself — we applaud the efforts of Sen. Barrasso and we are hopeful the bill will continue to improve as it advances in the Senate," George said.