Sunday, January 10, 2016

Federal Policy, Western Lands, and Malheur

by Jason Heppler

To people like those occupying Malheur, that large portions of the West are under the administration of the federal government is an affront to their sensibilities. These lands, they would contend, deserve to be opened up and sold to private entities, to expand private property ownership in the West and allow the land to be put to “productive” use. The continued presence of federal ownership, they’d argue, threatens the sovereignty of states and individuals. But these lands were never meant to be a “theft” from production. Quite the opposite. Except for wildlife preserves, most federal land management encourages the use of these lands—for recreation, grazing, military testing, and so on. Although these lands are regulated in the kinds of use they contain, they are, ultimately, used.

But that very use introduces a complex political problem referred to as “multiple use.” The western federal lands have many interests that need to be served. Multiple use urges “harmonious and coordinated management of the various resources” to “give the greatest dollar return or the greatest unit output.” By and large, although both sides might grumble about each other, public land officials and ranchers tend to work together—and must if we hope to reach a balance between the protection of land and its use for production or leisure.

The militants represent a long debate in the West. Many are pointing to the Sagebrush Rebellion. An apt comparison, in this case. At the policy level, public grazing law underwent dramatic changes beginning in 1970 with the National Environmental Policy Act, followed by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 and the Public Rangeland Improvement Act of 1978. The combination of these legislative actions endorsed the environmentalist critique of livestock on the public range and sanctioned the reduction of livestock, which prompted a sharp reaction among ranchers in the West. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, what became known as the “Sagebrush Rebellion” called for the privatization of public lands.

The development of modern rangeland policy dates to 1934 with the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act, which placed all public domain lands under the control of the Department of the Interior that had been previously managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Furthermore, the act formed grazing districts under the control of local ranchers that had the power to issue, deny, and admit new grazers to the range. Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes formed a Grazing Division to monitor the grazing boards, which became the Grazing Service in 1939 before it was dismantled in 1946 and replaced again by the Bureau of Land Management. Although the Grazing Service was under the control of local ranchers, they nonetheless lacked the sort of control over public lands they desired. The Forest Service, which was not under local rancher control, administered greater regulatory services on the public range. Administrators in the Forest Service maintained that grazing permits were government-granted privileges for ranchers using public lands, and the permit did not grant ranchers private claims. This conflict—over who controlled the public lands—formed the basis of disagreements well through the 1970s and 1980s. The Taylor Grazing Act and the bureaucratic battles that emerged from it fueled early resentment towards government regulation of the land.

If the 1930s stirred western resentment, the 1940s placed ranchers on the defensive. Early in the decade, the House Appropriations Committee demanded an increase in grazing fees from the Grazing Service, followed by the Forest Service calling for herd reductions in National Forests in the years after World War II. Ranchers criticized the activist federal government as a giant leviathan encroaching on private property rights and free enterprise. As evidence of this growing controversy, government hearings over public land disputes ran almost continuously between 1941 and 1948. Public land controversies died down in the 1950s and remained relatively quiet until the 1960s and 1970s as the polarized politics between organized ranchers and environmentalists exploded over the issues of grazing on the public lands.1

The first stage of the battles between environmentalists and ranchers emerged with the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1970, which allowed federal agencies to take “actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment” to “assure for all Americans safe, healthful, productive, and esthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings” and required agencies to provide detailed assessments of environmental impacts.2 Environmental impact statements, or EISs, became a source of legal conflict as environmentalists filed suits against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), challenging their ecological assessments of the impact livestock grazing had on public lands. The first of these came from the Natural Resources Defense Council, which filed suit in 1973 to contest an EIS the BLM completed in evaluating its grazing program. The National Resource Defense Council argued the EIS insufficiently detailed the specific impacts at the local level. In December 1974 a federal judge agreed, saying that the EIS was not “fine-tuned” and failed to account for “individual geographic conditions.”3 The mounting pressure from environmentalists forced the agency to react and set in motion tremendous changes in public grazing policy to such an extent that a group of legal scholar noted “future historians may date the beginning of modern rangeland management from December 1974 when a federal district court ordered the BLM to comply with the NEPA.”4

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