Volume 4, Number 14 - July 1, 2004
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Grazing permits backlogged
U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici urged the U.S. Forest Service to commit more resources to processing its vast backlog of grazing permits renewals. Domenici's request was made during last Wednesday's hearing that served as a review of federal grazing programs.
Domenici noted that the agency has made strong progress in reducing the backlog of permits in Region Three, the Southwest. However, nationwide, the Forest Service has still not processed more than 6,000 grazing permits, some of them accumulated before 1995.
A Forest Service representative told the subcommittee that the Forest Service is processing grazing permits at a current rate of 368 per year. At the current rate, it will take the Forest Service 17 years to address its current backlog.
By contrast, the BLM has reduced its own grazing permit backlog by 85 percent in the last four years. Of the approximately 12,041 BLM permits that have expired in the past four years, nearly 10,234 of them have been renewed. The BLM is on track to wipe out its backlog by 2009.
"I want to congratulate the BLM on its swift progress," Domenici said. "The agency's results are impressive. I am pleased to see the BLM is on target to eliminate its backlog in five years.
"However, I remain concerned about the performance of the Forest Service. I am pleased with the excellent work the agency has done to address the permit backlog in the Southwest. However, nationwide, the Forest Service backlog is still alarmingly large. The agency doesn't appear to have a plan in place for managing this problem. This committee has increased Forest Service funding and sought to free it from unnecessary congressional mandates. It's time the Forest Service show us some results. Next year, I hope for results more impressive than what I've seen this year."
Bureau of Land Management Deputy Director Jim Hughes opened his testimony with the Bush Administration's acknowledgement that ranching "is an important component of the economies of many Western rural communities, and it is the core of their history, social fabric, and cultural identity. Ranching can also play an important role in preserving open space in the fast-growing West."
Hughes said the BLM "is committed to collaborating with those who work on the public lands as we strive for economically-productive and environmentally-healthy rangelands."
The BLM manages grazing on more than 160 million acres of public land in the West, including over 18,000 grazing permits and leases. Hughes said that in 2003, six million animal unit months were utilized on BLM-administered public rangelands.
By regulation, grazing leases and permits are normally issued for 10-year periods. In a typical year the BLM has 1,500 permits up for renewal, Hughes said. The BLM experienced a spike in grazing permit renewals in 1999. Over 5,000 permits were due for renewal in 1999, and 2,200 permits in 2000. Additionally, the BLM was required to improve environmental documentation for processing grazing permit and lease renewals. The increased workload made it clear that the BLM would not meet the required deadlines for permit renewals, Hughes said, noting that Congress had taken action to ensure that grazing permittees and lessees could continue to graze if the BLM was unable to complete the environmental analysis mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act. Since 1999, a provision has been included each year in the Interior Appropriations bill that gives the BLM the authority to extend grazing permits and leases under their same terms and conditions until completion of NEPA compliance, Endangered Species Act consultation, and other legal requirements.
"As the BLM began working its way through the permit workload spike, it became increasingly clear that simply doing 'business as usual' was not going to provide a long-term solution to the problem," Hughes testified. "Therefore, the Bureau has placed an emphasis on renewing expiring grazing permits within priority watersheds with significant resource-use conflicts or issues. Rather than rigidly adhering to a predetermined schedule of renewals, where possible, we are grouping permits with common impacts, watersheds and land health standards. Not only does this provide a more even redistribution of future permit renewals over a full 10-year cycle, but it also affords more timely completion of consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and/or the NOAA Fisheries. In addition, these measures will facilitate an effective review of land health standards on a watershed basis, allow for improved cumulative impact analysis, and focus restoration resources. In the long term, this will improve and streamline our processing of permit renewals."
Of the 12,041 grazing permits that expired between 1999 and 2003, 10,234 have been fully processed. The remaining 1,807 are planned for completion by the close of 2009, at which time the BLM plans to fully process all permits in the year they expire, Hughes said.
"Terms and conditions have been substantially unchanged from the expired permit for the overwhelming majority of fully processed permits," Hughes said, expressing hope that the renewal backlog will be completed by 2009.
Hughes concluded his testimony with this: "All of these BLM efforts recognize the important role played by ranchers in protecting the land and preserving open spaces in the West. The economic and social benefits of ranching in this country are many - and the BLM strives to preserve that important part of our heritage."
U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief Tom Thompson pointed out that his agency has been managing rangelands for nearly 100 years.
"Today, there are grazing allotments on nearly half of all National Forest System lands, approximately 90 million acres of land in 34 states," Thompson said. The Forest Service administers approximately 8,800 allotments, with over 9,000 livestock permits, and about 9.7 million animal unit months of grazing by cattle, horses, sheep and goats. Ninety-nine percent of permitted grazing occurs in the West.
Thompson noted that the "Rescissions Act" directed the Forest Service to identify grazing allotments that needed NEPA analysis and to establish and adhere to a schedule for the completion of that analysis. The end date established in the schedule was 2010. "The Rescissions Act was needed because the Forest Service faced a daunting challenge in 1995 to complete the NEPA process on 6,886 allotments, with approximately half of these Forest Service grazing permits due to expire," Thompson said.
Legislation enacted last year also required the agency to renew grazing permits for those permittees whose permits expired prior to or during fiscal year 2003, as the Forest Service was behind the schedule established for the Rescissions Act and was dealing with pending lawsuits, Thompson explained.
"NEPA analyses will still have to be completed on these allotments and the terms and conditions of the renewed grazing permit will remain in effect until such time as the analysis is completed," he said.
In addition, the 2004 Interior Appropriations Act directed the Secretary of Agriculture to renew grazing permits that expired are transferred or waived between 2004 and 2008.
The Forest Service has continued to complete NEPA analyses on those grazing allotments that are listed on the schedule, Thompson said. As of February 2004, approximately 2,300 allotments have NEPA analysis completed. An additional 368 allotments are scheduled for completion of NEPA analysis this fiscal year. Thompson said the Forest Service remains committed to completing the environmental analysis on the remaining allotments by the 2010 deadline without disrupting permitted livestock grazing activities.
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