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Breaking the law for 60 years
An Unprecedented Petition Challenges Grazing Act
by Steven T. Taylor/© 1999 Cascadia Times
For the last several years, environmental groups have attacked the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in court for what they perceive to be its failure to protect America's range, (see accompanying stories). These legal efforts have chipped away at the bureaucratic armor that shields the cattle industry and its historic rights to graze livestock on federal lands. But conservationists have not yet launched a comprehensive assault on the very foundation of rangeland policy.
Until now, that is.
In an unprecedented move, the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) is now challenging a bedrock provision in the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 -- ironically enough, the very law that gave birth to the Grazing Service, the BLM's parent organization.
ONDA is charging the Department of Interior, and by extension the BLM, of breaking the law for more than 60 years by ignoring the Taylor act's requirement that Interior survey all lands under its domain to determine which are suitable for grazing. ONDA is petitioning the department to create rules by which the BLM would conduct such a classification study.
In essence, the environmental group asserts, the BLM has been in violation of the law its entire life thanks to its law-breaking supervisor, the Interior Department.
Had Interior and the BLM obeyed the law and classified those lands that are in fact appropriate for grazing, the government could have prevented the deterioration of lands on which livestock have no business grazing, ONDA asserts. That is, much of the arid West may have been spared more than 60 years of environmental degradation.
And that was a key premise for the passage of the landmark New Deal-era legislation in the first place. The idea of protection was perhaps most succinctly expressed in the preamble to the Taylor act. One of the purposes of the law is "to stop injury to the public grazing lands by preventing overgrazing and soil deterioration."
The petition charges that the "failure to comply with the [Taylor act] has resulted in drastic degradation and, in some cases, irreparable damage to resource values on public lands managed by the BLM. This ecological destruction violates the express purpose of the [act]."
"Because of the failure of the Department of Interior to follow the law, and BLM's incompetence, ineptness and ignorance, we are now living with more than a half-century of damage to the landscape that in many cases is irreversible and in others will take hundreds of years to restore," says Bill Marlett, ONDA's executive director.
Interior has not responded to the petition, except for sending a letter to ONDA acknowledging receipt of the petition. On Dec. 7, some two months after ONDA's filing, BLM's Acting Director Tom Fry wrote, "Since the issues you raise are complex, I cannot promise you an exact date for making a determination on the merits of your petition."
Failure by the BLM to act on this petition may open the agency up to yet another law suit, Marlett says. (See accompanying stories for information on other litigation involving the BLM.)
"Chiefly Valuable" Is Language Linchpin
Although the Taylor act required Interior to order a thorough examination of federal lands to determine which lands are "chiefly valuable" for grazing, the department did not. In effect, it allowed the ranching community to decide for itself, according to the petition.
Interior let "grazing interests dictate every aspect of
the act's implementation," the petition states, "from the initial classification decisions to the content of regulations governing the use of those districts. Thus the decisions about which land was 'chiefly valuable' for livestock grazing were not made by [Department of Interior], but rather by the livestock industry, the very industry that the [law] was passed to regulate and whose abusive practices led to the need for the act in the first place."
Consequently, ONDA is now requesting that Interior do what the law required of it in 1934: "[I]nitiate a rule-making process to establish procedural and substantive standards for the Bureau of Land Management to use to determine the areas within grazing districts that are 'chiefly valuable for grazing and raising forage crops' as required by [the law]."
Furthermore, the petition cites the BLM for breaking another law, the Federal Lands Policy Management Act of 1976 (FLMPA), which reinforced this notion of surveying "chiefly valuable" grazing lands. The agency "has failed to fulfill FLPMA's mandate by neglecting to promulgate and use regulations for classifying and [creating an inventory of] public lands," the petition states.
BLM Acknowledges Unsuitability of Grazing
Although the petition's filing may come as a surprise to some within BLM and Interior management, it shouldn't shock all of those familiar with rangeland policy. In fact, a former high-level BLM insider, who calls himself neutral on grazing, says this is exactly the kind of attack he would take if he were a member of the environmental community. He says such a strategy serves as a wake-up call for politicians and bureaucrats to elevate rangeland policies on the nation's priority list.
"The BLM lands have not been a priority nationally," says the source, who still works for the government and asked for anonymity. "If I were a conservationist, I'd have to wonder if [rangeland reform] is happening at all or at least happening fast enough. And, I'd push the notion of suitability. Right now grazing is considered by the BLM as appropriate anywhere that it's properly managed. [But] there are some areas of the Southwest and elsewhere that should not be grazed at all."
The source says an assault that uses the Taylor Grazing Act could be effective in removing from the grazing program lands that are not suitable. But it wouldn't occur without a fight: "There's a strong institutional bias against that because it would create so many enemies."
When asked if he thinks all BLM lands are chiefly valuable for grazing former BLM director Pat Shea responded quickly and decisively. "No," he said. "I look at FLPMA and see that we are a multi-task agency. Multiple use is the heart of FLPMA, and conservation is significant to multiple use. We need to find ways to sustain appropriate use that is compatible with the land. Quite frankly, in some areas grazing is not compatible."
Marlett says he's glad the former director acknowledge this, but adds, "Action speaks louder than words."