MARY CLARE JALONICK Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON A conservationist group is asking a federal court to block new grazing regulations that it contends would give ranchers more water rights and control over public lands. The Bureau of Land Management announced the final rules Wednesday, and they are to go into effect next month. First proposed in December 2003, the regulations would increase collaboration between the agency and ranchers whose livestock graze on 160 million acres of the nation’s public lands. The rules would allow livestock owners to share costs and ownership of range improvements, for example, and would give some ranchers additional water rights. The rules would also lessen some public input on decisions affecting public rangelands to make the permitting process more efficient. “Under the new regulations, BLM is allowing ranchers to dictate terms of grazing while excluding the public,” said Laird Lucas, lead attorney for the Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project, the group filing the lawsuit in Boise’s U.S. District Court. “The result will be widespread harm to fish and wildlife due to overgrazing.” Bobby McEnaney, a legislative advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said his group and other organizations are planning to file an additional lawsuit to stop the rules from going into effect.
Bureau of Land Management officials said the rules will improve the agency’s working relationships with public-land ranchers and encourage more range improvements. “These new regulations are aimed at promoting more effective and efficient management of public-lands grazing, which is a vital part of the history, economy and social identity of Western rural communities,” said BLM director Kathleen Clarke. BLM spokesman Tom Gorey said the new rules will allow more analysis of grazing’s effects on rangelands, which will help the agency determine any harm to the lands. However, conservation groups call that a stalling tactic. “They are making it far more difficult for BLM to manage their lands for something other than cattle,” says Tom Lustig, a staff attorney at National Wildlife Federation. Also changed is the definition of “interested public” when it comes to public input on agency grazing decisions. “The regulations with respect to the interested public are also revised to improve efficiency in BLM’s management of publiclands grazing by reducing the occasions in which the bureau is required to involve the interested public,” the rules read. Gorey said the rules are backed by sound environmental analysis and should withstand any legal challenges. “There are groups that are opposed to public-lands grazing and have made that clear,” he said. “We are not surprised.”