White House Revises Federal Grazing Rules

The Bush administration announces new rules for grazing on federal land. The White House says this is an important step toward saving American ranches in the West. But conservationists say the changes will reduce protections for vast stretches of public land.

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Today, the Federal Government announced new rules for livestock grazing on huge stretches of public land in the West. Environmentalist worry that the changes will reduce protection for streams and wildlife, but the Bush administration says the new rules will help to preserve another valuable asset: western ranches. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

Chances are, if you're a rancher in the West, your sheep or cattle graze on hundreds of acres of federal land. Under the Clinton administration, rules were put into place to limit the environmental damage caused by this grazing.

Mr. BILL BROOKS (Hydrologist): Most cases, when you see cattle's hoof prints in the stream channel, there is no vegetation left. It's pretty obvious that the cattle are the mechanism that caused the degradation of water quality.

SHOGREN: Until last year, Bill Brooks was the Nevada state hydrologist for the Federal Bureau of Land Management. For several years, the Bush administration has been rewriting the grazing rules. and they face some tough criticism, even with some long time federal land managers like Brooks.

Mr. BROOKS: Instead of saying once you've been made aware of a problem that you would have to do something by the beginning of the next grazing season, it now gives you two years to study it to decide what you need to do. So you're delayed two years.

SHOGREN: That means land managers can no longer make those kinds of quick, professional judgments that a stretch of land is at risk and can't be grazed anymore. Now they have to monitor environmental problems over time and collect data to prove that grazing is hurting the land.

Mr. JIM HUGHES (Deputy Director of Bureau of Land Management): We want our decisions based on good science out there.

SHOGREN: That's Jim Hughes, the Deputy Director of the Bureau of Land Management. He says hasty judgments aren't always correct.

Mr. HUGHES: We could go out today to a piece of property and say boy, it's pretty brown, it's not doing good. And then they could have three weeks of rain, and it greens up, and grass starts growing at a much faster rate. So what you want to do is observe the range over a period of time to say, catch a trend.

SHOGREN: Hughes says that the rule changes are designed to make it easier for ranchers to stay in business. He says if it gets too hard and too expensive for ranchers to feed their cattle, they'll go out of business and sell their land to housing developers. He says this could be far worse for the environment and wildlife than grazing.

Mr. HUGHES: So we think as many ranches that we can have out there, that's good for the open space. It's good for the, you know, wildlife and it's good for our country.

SHOGREN: Jeff Isenberg of the Public Lands Council represents ranchers that graze livestock on federal land. He agrees the new rules are about preserving something for all Americans.

Mr. JEFF ISENBERG (Public Lands Council): With all the concern in this country for maintaining the integrity of landscapes for biodiversity and general open space values, it's in the nation's interest to see these public ranchers to do well. The public land ranchers sell out, their lands inevitably and always - inexorably, really - get sub-divided.

SHOGREN: Isenberg says the ranchers are delighted with the new announcement. Brooks, the retired BLM manager, and many environmentalists are not. As far as Brooks is concerned, what's in the best interest of Americans is preserving the environment.

Mr. BROOKS: One of those things that's so wonderful about our country is the natural resources that we've been blessed with. And if these new regulations go forward, we're giving that up.

SHOGREN: He says ranchers shouldn't be allowed to destroy lands that belong to all Americans. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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