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December 5, 2003: Proposed Rule Alteration May Weaken Measures to Prevent Overgrazing

Interior Secretary Gale Norton announces in a speech to a convention of livestock owners in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is proposing new rules that would reverse rangeland management reforms implemented in 1995 aimed at deterring practices that cause overgrazing of public lands. According to Norton, the new proposal—which supporters say will act as a bulwark against suburban sprawl—“recognizes that ranching is crucial not only to the economies of Western rural communities, but also to the history, social fabric and cultural identity of these communities.” (Heilprin 12/4/2004; Bureau of Land Management 12/5/2004; Stein 12/10/2004) The proposal recommends giving the BLM two years, instead of one, to recommend changes after identifying occurrences of damaging grazing practices and another five years to implement those recommendations. But the agency would retain emergency authority to immediately suspend grazing privileges “if imminent likelihood of significant resource damage exists.” The proposal would also require the BLM to base all decisions on multiple years of monitoring data, even if the grazing damage is obvious and even though this would put a considerable strain on the agency, which oversees more than 18,000 grazing permits covering over 160 million acres nationwide. Other provisions in the proposal would make it more difficult to revoke the grazing permits of ranchers who violate the law; reduce public involvement in reviewing and commenting on decisions about grazing on public lands; and give ranchers partial ownership of any fences, water tanks, new water rights or other improvements to public rangelands. (Heilprin 1/3/2004; Natural Resources Defense Council 7/3/2004; Heilprin 12/4/2004; Stein 12/10/2004) The livestock industry applauds the new proposal but environmentalists warn that the recommendations would threaten wildlife, degrade water quality and quantity and damage archaeological, historic and Native American sites. (Natural Resources Defense Council 7/3/2004) The Natural Resources Defense Council, commenting on the recommended changes, says that it believes the proposal will result in increased overgrazing and other unsustainable grazing practices. (Heilprin 12/4/2004) The BLM will later draft an environmental impact study predicting short-term damage to grazing lands and wildlife (see January 2, 2004).


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