Anytime a freshman Congressman gets a bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, he can feel a sense of accomplishment.
Passing two bills is amazing.
Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador passed the “Exploring for Geothermal Energy on Federal Lands Act” in February. Last week the Republican’s “Grazing Improvement Act of 2012” passed the House.
The bill, co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. Jim Costa of California, would extend the terms for grazing permits from 10 to 20 years (these permits give ranchers the privilege, not the right, to graze cattle or sheep on public lands).
The bill also would reduce the amount of environmental review ranchers must undergo when they ask for permits to trail their sheep and cattle across pubic land.
“My bill will help ranchers in Idaho and across America, who are increasingly burdened with red tape, by providing them a streamlined permitting process to help them access public lands,” Labrador said.
The bill also would codify language attached to an earlier appropriations bill that requires expired grazing permits to be renewed under existing terms and conditions until the renewal process is complete. That’s because federal agencies have backlogged more than 4,200 permit renewals.
Today, grazing permits are integrated economically with ranchers’ entire operation. Any major change — because of drought, environmental degradation or other factors — affects ranchers’ net worth, their loans, their future.
Though some provisions of the Labrador bill passed by the House might eventually become law, it would be remarkable if the major provisions pass the Senate. Grazing policy remains polarized for a variety of reasons.
First, the damage to public lands from poor grazing practices has created a small but powerful and loud minority pushing for an end to grazing on public lands altogether. Such advocates argue that a ban would make little difference in the beef market because less than 10 percent of beef is raised on public lands — a statistic ranchers say is too low.
Second, cattle ranchers pay $1.35 per month to graze a cow and a calf; sheep ranchers pay 27 cents a month to graze one sheep. Those are prices that federal grazing critics have long said is too low. Ranchers say the high cost of grazing on public lands justifies the low fees, but the money generated doesn’t even pay the federal agencies’ oversight costs.
On the other side is the cowboy, the heart of the American story. Ranchers are viewed as hard-working business people contributing to the rural economy. Some 27,000 ranching families and companies have grazing permits.
They say they are improving grazing practices so they can protect streamside areas and wildlife habitat as they help feed the world.
The last time Congress took up grazing in a big way was to raise the fees in the early 1990s. But westerners, led by Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig, got enough votes to defend their filibuster and it died.
Getting the necessary 60 Senate votes to extend grazing permits to 20 years appears impossible today. It’s simply a math issue.
The other major issue is sage grouse. Many grazing permits are for federal land that includes sagebrush steppe habitat critical to conserving the 2-foot-tall bird and preventing it from being listed as an endangered species.
Gov. Butch Otter is pondering the recommendations of a task force aimed at ensuring there are “regulatory mechanisms” in place to make sure the grouse is protected without listing. Many of the provisions in Labrador’s bill would relax measures already in place.
“The sage grouse would have to be a consideration once the bill is passed,” said Phil Hardy, Labrador’s press secretary.
I suspect it will be considered when the bill comes up in the Senate.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484