Friday, July 14, 2006

BLM's new grazing rules spark lawsuit

Regulations affect 261 million acres of public land

Express Staff Writer

Jon Marvel

A new set of grazing rules created by the Department of Interior and Bureau of Land Management violate several federal laws and threaten fish and wildlife habitat on 261 million acres of America's public lands, according to a Hailey-based conservation group.

Published Wednesday, the new regulations were immediately challenged by Western Watersheds Project, which filed motions in U.S. District Court in Boise requesting an injunction to prevent the so-called "final rule" from taking effect.

Western Watersheds seeks to protect fish and wildlife habitat from grazing in the West.

"The revised regulations continue the sorry history of the Bush administration's management of public lands," said Western Watersheds Project Executive Director Jon Marvel. "This is just part of the program to turn public lands over to for-profit corporations."

Marvel claims the BLM's final rule—not to be confused with the Bush administration's "final rule," which seeks to revise management policies on 58 million acres of roadless National Forest land—will benefit the ranching industry with watered-down environmental requirements.

Western Watersheds' attorney, Laird Lucas, said the regulations seek to eliminate public involvement and will result in "widespread harm to fish and wildlife due to overgrazing."

The National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act are all being violated, Marvel said.

The BLM, which manages 261 million acres of public land in the country, mostly across 12 Western states, including about 12 million acres in Idaho, claims the new regulations will "improve the agency's management of public lands."

Much of the Wood River Valley is bordered by BLM land, which is crisscrossed with dirt roads and mountain biking, equestrian and hiking trails.

Marvel claims that ranching is no different than other big business. Like oil, gas, coal and mining, "it's dominated by large corporations," he said.

He noted that the final rule will grant private rights on public land, such as allowing ranchers to obtain water rights and claim ownership of fences, cattle-guards, pipelines and man-made ponds.

"The reason they want to do that is because they think it will legally force the BLM to continue to allow grazing in the future," Marvel said. "Because if grazing is reduced or eliminated then (the ranchers) will say they can't use their water rights.

"It just makes it more difficult to change their use."

Marvel also claims that the BLM altered the analysis of one of its own specialists, Erick Campbell. Campbell, a retired BLM official, filed a report during the review process warning that the new regulations will threaten wildlife, Marvel said.

"We know it was changed because it has been corroborated by other agency staff," Marvel said. "It's the suppression of science as part of the Bush administration's response to environmental problems."

Ken Visser, a rangeland management specialist with the BLM, said Marvel's accusations are not "an accurate characterization of the rule" and that the lawsuit was expected.

"They did previously file prematurely when the (Environmental Impact Statement) was published last year. Thus, their lawsuit was not unexpected," Visser said. "They do not like the changes being made, and they're taking their actions to court, which is pretty much how they deal with their grievances."

Visser called Marvel's assertion that the BLM's final rule is part of a larger agenda to favor the ranching industry, "a gross generalization."

"I can't comment on publicly held opinions on the way livestock grazing is administered," he added.

Marvel has asked the court to enjoin the new regulations—effective Aug. 11—until the litigation is resolved, which could take a couple years.

A hearing on that request will be held in California in the next few weeks, Marvel said.

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