In separate internal reports written two years ago, scientists from the BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warned that the BLM's new rules could or would damage wildlife, water supplies, streamside areas, vegetation and endangered species. The Wildlife Service's report also said that the rules would tend to give grazing a higher priority than other uses, remove the public from the decision-making process, and give away public rights on public land.
But higher-ups at the BLM rewrote their scientists' report. The Wildlife Service's concerns were rolled into a draft report and sent to the BLM in June 2004. The report was never finalized, says service spokesman Chris Tollefson, because Fish and Wildlife couldn't get a meeting with BLM officials.
Instead, an environmental impact statement released this summer says that for the most part, the new grazing rules will not do any harm to wildlife, water or other parts of the natural environment.
The new regulations, which take effect in August, require BLM officials to carry out detailed monitoring before saying that a grazing allotment does not meet rangeland health standards. Even if the agency determines that an allotment is in bad shape, it will have to wait two to five years in most cases before reducing cattle numbers.
The new regulations allow ranchers to share ownership of fencing, water wells and other range improvements, traditionally owned solely by the federal government. And the BLM will no longer have to consult with the public before it renews grazing permits or changes the boundaries of grazing allotments.
"The proposed action will have a slow, long-term adverse impact on wildlife and biological diversity in general," the internal BLM report warned. "Upland and riparian habitats will continue to decline due to increasing an already burdensome grazing appeals process, lack of ability to control illegal activities on public lands, and allowing livestock operators to acquire rights to livestock management facilities and vegetation on public lands."
The agency's final environmental impact statement says that at most, the rule changes will harm wildlife only in the short term, and only in a small number of cases. In some cases, it says, wildlife may even benefit from the changes.
The final statement also says that riparian areas, always a hot-button issue in grazing disputes, will remain in the same condition or even improve slightly under the new rules. The internal 2003 report warned of "degradation of channel morphology and water quality" and "declining vegetative cover," due in large part to what it called "the increasing and burdensome administrative procedural requirements."
Erick Campbell, one of about 15 BLM scientists who wrote the original report, says he had expected his work to be rewritten somewhat, but not in this wholesale manner. He quit his job in March after three decades with the agency because, he says, "The Bush administration is just rolling back any advances made in the last 30 years. We are going back to the 19th century."
Bill Brookes, a hydrologist who also worked on the original report, resigned in January after 25 years with the BLM, in part out of frustration with the administration's handling of environmental issues. After his group submitted the original report, he says, "We were cut off from the process. A small team of range cons were brought into the Washington office. That group rewrote everything we and other members prepared, casting it all in a positive light."
In a prepared statement, the BLM said this summer that the two men's work was rewritten after a team of other staffers found it to be "based on personal opinion and unsubstantiated assertions rather than sound environmental analysis."
In its statement, the BLM acknowledged that the new rules are meant to help the ranching community. By keeping ranchers in business, the agency says, it will be able to protect open space and prevent sprawl. The new rules represent the first major changes in BLM grazing standards in a decade, since former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's range reform program took effect. They retain some of Babbitt's more controversial changes, such as tougher rangeland health standards and the creation of Resource Advisory Councils, which replaced the old rancher-dominated BLM advisory boards and include a broader base of interest groups. One change goes further, allowing ranchers for the first time to remove cattle from allotments for as long as they want. The old rules forbade more than three straight years of "non-use."
BLM spokesman Tom Gorey says the agency retains full authority to remove cattle quickly in emergencies, such as droughts and wildfires, and to protect endangered species-if the agency has the science to back it up. "If you come out with a decision and you don't have sufficient data to support it, the rancher can make a case that we don't have data and get a stay, which means it doesn't go into effect."
Campbell, however, says the land and wildlife will be the losers in this deal, because the BLM will never have the staff to do the required monitoring. "I think my bottom line is that there's no way we will ever effect changes in livestock grazing," he says. "The cowboys will not allow it."
This article originally appeared in the High Country News. The author reports for the Arizona Daily Star. Contact him at 520-807-7790 or firstname.lastname@example.org.