For Immediate Release – January 9, 2020
Talasi Brooks, Western Watersheds Project, (208) 336-9077
Josh Osher, Western Watersheds Project, (406) 830-3099
BOISE, Ida. – As climate change fuels wildfires in Australia, President Trump’s new National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations not only push forward infrastructure decisions while ignoring climate change in environmental decision-making, they will also affect management of 250 million acres of American public lands rented under federally-subsidized grazing programs. Overgrazing the public lands and converting them to the annual weed cheatgrass squanders an opportunity to sequester massive quantities of carbon in the soil, and this is likely to accelerate under weaker environmental oversight.
“The proposed revisions give more authority to local interests, like ranchers, and cut the public out of the decision process,” said Talasi Brooks, a staff attorney with the Idaho-based conservation organization Western Watersheds Project. “This promotes ‘agency capture,’ where regulatory agencies become controlled by the very industries they are supposed to be regulating.”
“The inclusion of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in the press conference rolling out the rule is only the first sign that these changes go far beyond addressing the purported ‘paperwork’ delays for infrastructure and transportation projects,” said Josh Osher, Policy Director with Western Watersheds Project. “The NEPA process is the opportunity for the public to have a say in management decisions affecting millions of acres of public lands, and this new rule undercuts that by limiting public oversight.”
“The new rule aims to shield bad decisions from public scrutiny by narrowly defining when NEPA applies, increasing the use of categorical exclusions, eliminating opportunities for the public to weigh in on environmental assessments, and creating roadblocks to judicial review,” said Brooks. “These changes will allow federal projects to proceed in the dark, even where they impact imperiled species, watershed health, and wildlife corridors, dishonoring the purpose and intent of NEPA.”
Livestock grazing permit renewals already often evade full environmental analysis under NEPA and are reissued under a recently-created “categorical exclusion” if the terms and conditions of the permit will be unchanged. Additionally, the 2015 changes to the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) codified that livestock grazing permits are not suspended upon expiration but are instead renewed indefinitely until NEPA is completed. In both cases the public is typically shut out of the decision-making process. The new regulations seem aimed at increasing the circumstances in which federal grazing decisions are pushed through without giving the public a chance to weigh in, while increasing the role of local interest groups when NEPA is required.
“Livestock grazing is the most widespread private use of public lands,” said Osher. “It degrades water quality, spreads invasive species, imperils predators and native wildlife, erodes our soils, and tramples archeological resources and cultural sites for the marginal benefit of a tiny subset of this country’s livestock industry. It should be subject to more environmental scrutiny, not less.”