WITH TIRESOME REGULARITY, Congress drafts new grazing bills that favor agricultural interests - to the detriment of our public lands. This year's giveaway applies to public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
Though the bill is titled "The Forage Improvement Act" (HR 2493), forage is the last thing that will be improved by the bill. It has already passed the U.S. House and now faces Senate committee action.Interestingly, although 270 million acres of public lands are involved, there will be no hearings or public testimony in the Senate. There were no legislative hearings in House committees, either. Congress doesn't want to hear any comments from the public about the public's land. The message is, "Shut up. We'll give away your rights on public lands, and you'll like it."
The bill was introduced in the House last year by Rep. Bob Smith, R-Ore., who from 1995 through 1996 received $183,502 or 42 percent of his campaign contributions from agricultural interests. It's clear that this legislation has been bought.
Federal grazing fees under this forage bill formula remain well below state and private grazing fees schedules. There is no minimum fee in the new complex formula. Current grazing fees on federal land do not cover the government's cost for managing the grazing program. This bill makes the problem worse. Taxpayers will have to pick up the tab - to the tune of $500 million or more.
The forage bill will subsidize billionaire livestock owners like William Hewlett of Hewlett-Packard and Oscar Wyatt, founder and CEO of Coastal Corp., the nation's 12th largest oil company. It will subsidize corporate cattle operations like those of Metropolitan Life and Anheuser-Busch. Nine percent of the grazing permittees control 60 percent of the forage on public lands. It's the rich who are supported with taxpayer dollars in this scheme.
To add insult to injury, HR 2493 prohibits members of the public from monitoring their own public lands - if those lands are leased for grazing. If a hunter or sportsman sees the destruction of riparian or wetlands areas, and he or she reports it, that information cannot be used by the federal agency that is supposed to oversee the public lands.
The Forest Service and the BLM do not have the personnel to monitor the millions of acres used for grazing. These agencies depend upon information provided by hikers, hunters, anglers, university researchers and environmental groups. HR 2493 only allows federal agencies, lessees and permittees, and their paid consultants to provide monitoring information to the federal agencies.
The taxpaying public subsidizes those who have grazing leases and permits on the public lands, but the taxpaying public isn't allowed to monitor those lands.
Not only does the forage bill restrict who can monitor the public lands used for grazing, it requires the federal agencies to "provide reasonable notice of the monitoring to affected permittees or lessees . . . of not less than 48 hours." No other public land user gets such notice - not mining companies, not oil companies, not those who hunt or fish or camp on public lands.
Any bank robber would love to have 48-hour notice before police monitored his activities. Most ranchers take care of their grazing leases, but for those who don't, the 48-hour rule is an opportunity to temporarily suspend or alter practices that harm fish and wildlife or the land itself.
The monitoring section of HR 2493 prohibits federal agencies from taking action even when there are severe problems or threats to fish and wildlife unless the agencies have multiple years of data collected over time that show poor management practices by a permittee or lessee.
Another section of the bill calls for "an allotment management plan" on public lands on which grazing permits or grazing leases have been granted. "Allotment" is a share or portion given out of a common holding, according to Black's Law Dictionary. The language of the bill nudges a permit or lease into ownership.
In a subtle way, the forage bill creates a grazing right where there should only be a privilege.
The allotment management plan would allow livestock to graze unsupervised and uncontrolled - even if public lands were seriously damaged by overgrazing.
It should be clear why Congress has not held public hearings on HR 2493.
Johanna Wald, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, calls this bill "an attempt to turn back the clock to the days when the livestock operators and permittees were calling the shots on the public lands and the public was totally out of the loop."
This grazing bill, if passed, will only lead to more acrimony and litigation.
Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt sent a letter to Rep. Smith in February saying that the Department of the Interior would recommend that the president veto the House version of the grazing bill. Since the Senate bill is exactly the same, the threat of veto remains.
It would be better for everyone if this bill died quietly in the Senate.