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Ranchers: Partners In Health Of Idaho Lands

Guest column submitted by U.S. Senator Mike Crapo

More than forty percent of Idaho's land is classified as rangeland, which makes it the largest land type in the state.  The open space provided through rangeland supports a myriad of public benefits, including healthy watersheds, habitat for wildlife and vegetation, recreational opportunities and livestock production.  Among the resources for managing rangelands, livestock grazing is an essential tool, and the ranchers who provide this management tool are partners in the effort to sustain the health of Idaho's lands and waters. 


Population growth, development, invasive species and drought are among the threats to rangeland.  Wildfire is another with which Idahoans are far too familiar.  Idaho has been an epicenter for fires that have burned at least 300 acres or more.  Livestock grazing helps manage these fuel loads among many other benefits.  The U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is responsible for 22 percent of Idaho's land and is the primary manager of federal lands grazing in the state, asserts that "well-managed grazing provides numerous environmental benefits."  Some of the benefits identified by the BLM include control of some invasive plant species, reduction of fuels that contribute to severe wildfires, and well-managed rangelands support healthy watersheds, carbon sequestration, recreational opportunities, wildlife habitat and meat and fiber production. 


Despite the benefits grazing can provide, it, along with other uses of public lands, are facing increased constraints.   Mother Nature deals a different hand each grazing season, and weather variability coupled with continuing and increasing regulation of the use of public lands, and litigation-delayed management decisions increase pressure on the ranch families that help sustain public land health and provide critical habitat on private lands.  Addressing the uncertainty that faces livestock operations requires close coordination among agencies and permit holders. 


Without coordination, no one wins.  For example, Owyhee county ranchers Tim Lowry and Paul Nettleton spent a decade in a court battle after being sued by the BLM over stock water rights utilized by the ranches since the late 1800's.  Even though, Lowry and Nettleton prevailed in the case, they have been impacted by considerable litigation expenses that threaten the viability of their operations.  Senator Jim Risch and I introduced legislation to authorize the award of fees incurred through the litigation. 


I also joined Senator Jim Risch and other western senators in introducing the Grazing Improvement Act of 2011, which seeks to provide stability by addressing the paralysis on grazing permit renewals associated with litigation.  This legislation would permit federal agencies to renew permits and leases while environmental analysis is being completed, but maintain the ability of the agency to take action when violations occur.  Additionally, the agencies would be able to issue categorical exclusions under the National Environmental Policy Act when continuing the current management.  These common sense measures codify annual direction from Congress.  Providing reasonable predictability in the permit renewal process is important to keeping ranches intact.   


When ranches remain whole, we all benefit.  As stewards of the land, ranchers implement conservation practices, help guard against invasive species and fires, drought and other impacts.  The lands they own and manage are critical for wildlife and water quality.  In Idaho, public and private lands are intertwined.  Public lands grazing helps sustain the ranches that preserve open spaces and conserve natural resources.  This important partnership is instrumental in ensuring the health of Idaho's lands and must be maintained. 


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