Wednesday, August 16, 2006

BLM?s new grazing rules blocked by court

Western Watersheds Project scores early victory in ongoing battle


By STEVE BENSON
Express Staff Writer

A new set of grazing rules covering 160 million acres of Western public lands have hit a snag after a federal judge ruled they may violate federal environmental and land-use acts.

The grazing regulations, crafted by the Bureau of Land Management and published July 12, were immediately challenged by Hailey-based 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.

On Aug. 11, Federal District Judge B. Lynn Winmill issued a preliminary injunction blocking the implementation of the new regulations. The ruling prohibits the regulations from coming into effect until a final judgement is rendered, which could take up to a year.

In his court order, Winmill stated that Western Watersheds has a "strong argument" that the BLM's final rule "violates" the National Environmental Policy Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.

"This was more than a shot across the bow. I suggest the bow has been hit and is taking on water and the ship is going down," said Todd Tucci, a senior attorney for Advocates for the West, which is representing Western Watersheds. "If the BLM wants to continue to fight, we will fight."

Based on a statement released by the BLM last Friday, the battle will likely continue.

"Today's court action is a development in an ongoing legal process," the BLM stated. "The Bureau of Land Management is confident that the new grazing regulations it has published will withstand legal challenge when the judicial review process is complete."

The BLM manages 261 million acres of public land in the country, mostly across 12 Western states, including about 12 million acres in Idaho. The new regulations only affect land authorized for grazing.

Advocates for the West and Western Watersheds—which says it is committed to protecting fish and wildlife habitat from grazing impacts in the West—claim the BLM's new rules were crafted without sufficient public comment.

Furthermore, the new rules will place more power in the hands of ranchers while eliminating public input in future land-use activities on BLM land, according to Jon Marvel, executive director of Western Watersheds.

"This is another victory blocking the Bush administration's agenda of privatizing public lands for the benefit of a very few," Marvel said. "Considering the language in this (court) decision, the BLM is at risk if it chooses to implement any of the new grazing regulations."

The BLM claims it developed the new rules based on "extensive public input," including more than 18,000 public comments collected since December 2003, when the new regulations were proposed.

"In addition, more than 8,300 comments were received during a 'scoping' period that identified issues to be considered in the rulemaking process," the BLM stated. "The BLM believes that the new regulations will produce long-term benefits for rangeland health."

In his court order, Winmill said the BLM may be "improperly minimizing the detrimental effects of the changes on public input and failing to contain information from which the court and public could evaluate the limitations on public input contained in the new regulations."

He added that "irreparable harm could result from the BLM making decision(s) without the full public input mandated by (the National Environmental Policy Act)."

Marvel claims the BLM was so determined to pass the new rules that it changed 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 would threaten wildlife.

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

Much of the Wood River Valley is lined with BLM land, which is used by the public for an assortment of recreational activities, including hiking, mountain and dirt biking, hunting, backcountry skiing and snowmobiling.




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