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Media Releases, Legislative News, Agricultural Updates
U.S. Department of the Interior – Director (630)
Bureau of Land Management
1849 C St. NW, Room 5646
Washington, DC 20240
RE: Proposed Rule on Conservation and Landscape Health – FR Doc # 2023-06310
(posted on April 3, 2023)
Dear Director Stone-Manning:
Rocky Mountain Farmers Union (RMFU) represents roughly 15,000 family farmer and rancher members in Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming. Since 1907, RMFU has been dedicated to sustaining our rural communities, to the wise stewardship and use of natural resources, to the protection of our safe, secure food supply, and to achieving viability of family farmers and ranchers.
During our lengthy tenure, our members have embraced the principles of conservation-based management and we value the role that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) plays in protecting and sustaining the renewable resources that family-scale ranchers depend upon for their livelihood. We see numerous avenues that can be taken to improve the management of the lands under the jurisdiction of BLM. However, we have considerable concerns with multiple provisions of the proposed rule.
Foundational to the improvement to these vital public resources is the need to create partnerships and collaborative relationships so these valuable assets be sustained in a responsible manner. We stand ready to work together towards this aim and we welcome the opportunity to partner with BLM and other collaborators to work across Federal and non-Federal lands to protect intact landscapes as described in § 6102.2. However, we believe that the proposed rule, as written, will counter this goal.
Although there are numerous provisions within the proposed rule that state that existing grazing rights will not be impacted, subsequent reauthorizations are less certain. Generation after generation of family ranchers depend on access to these vital resources and a loss of a grazing allotment, even temporarily, can mean real financial injury to the value of their business. This is especially true when factoring long-term costs associated with adjusting stocking rates. Access to grazing not only impacts individual producers, it also can have deep repercussions within small rural communities whose economy depend on ranching. We fear that the uncertainty of reauthorizations for grazing allotments would lead the many stakeholders that value these lands on a collision course. Instead, we offer ideas that will lead to collaboration versus conflict.
BLM controls over thirty-eight million acres between RMFU’s three states of Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming, and this comprises over eight thousand grazing allotments. We believe that these permittees hold enormous potential in partnership to use outcome-based grazing as a vehicle to achieve many of the conservation goals articulated in the proposed rule. It is of utmost importance to ensure that any changes to the multiple use framework benefit and not harm current land stewards. If executed properly, these changes should elevate grazing to improve soil health, sequester carbon, increase water holding capacity, and reduce wildfire fuel loads.
In addition to ecological values, we appreciate the emphasis on the intersection with historic stewards of these lands. We applaud the inclusion of indigenous knowledge for the Department’s decision making, resource management, program implementation, policy development, scientific research, and other actions. Our member-led policy understands the distinct structural challenges indigenous producers face in accessing federal programming that support viable farming and ranching operations and we thank you for making this inclusive choice in decision making.
We recommend the spirit of this rule build off the BLM initiative Outcome-based Grazing Authorizations where voluntary incentives are utilized to continue good management and set goals and outcomes based on a resource management plan to implement innovative, producer-led collaborative solutions where flexibility is tied to tiered plans, adaptive management, and improved/enhanced management. A major function of this would be to create temporary nonrenewable permits to timely adapt and create workable options to address drought, snowpack and wildfire impacts as well as to offset a loss of grazing due to restoration or mitigation projects. Streamlining the process for the transition of permits and billing of actual use would also be valuable reforms.
Land Health Use Fundamentals and Standards
We appreciate that there are no proposed changes to the four grazing fundamentals of land health (watershed function, ecological processes, water quality, and wildlife habitat) as articulated in 43 CFR 4180 and we support elevating these standards across all lands and program areas to mitigate ecological impacts by all users. These standards should, in fact, be the baseline for securing a reauthorization of any existing lease. In other words, if the existing lease is meeting the basic standards, these should be considered a conservation use and any additional conservation lease approval should guarantee that a reauthorization for a current use on the same parcel will not be affected.
“Casual use” as defined in § 6104.4, should not only apply so that conservation leases not preclude the public from accessing public lands for noncommercial activities such as recreation but also for any renewable uses such as grazing.
We ask that authorized officers consult and expand Resource Advisory Councils (RACs) within each state and follow their recommendations for any periodic evaluation of land use standards and guidelines. Selection criteria for these Resource Advisory Councils should require diverse stakeholder representation in order to provide local input into land management decisions and any guidelines that are adopted should have reasonable evidence-based parameters while considering economic impacts to users.
While we support permit management being based on scientific data, we have concerns that increasing land health evaluations, inventory, assessment, and monitoring requirements as described in § 6103.2 will be greatly challenging with recent staffing levels. We ask for an evaluation of wages of federal employees to ensure public land offices are fully staffed.
Questions posed in the proposed rule:
Is the term ‘conservation lease’ the best term for this tool?
Conservation, as defined in § 6101.4, means maintaining resilient, functioning ecosystems by protecting or restoring natural habitats and ecological functions. Well managed grazing will accomplish the same objectives when it comes to rangeland health and we ask for the inclusion of the term ‘active management’ within the conservation definition.
RMFU has historically advocated for what we termed a ‘stewardship permit’. The approval of a stewardship permit or conservation lease should encourage a holistic and collaborative approach that supports renewable resource production and enhances wildlife habitat, water systems including water holding capacity and water quality, and soil health. This could be used as an allotment or intact landscape management plan where improvements could be identified and established, resources enhanced, and appropriate rest be allowed and supported without penalty.
What is the appropriate default duration for a conservation lease?
There should be no default duration except that there should be a maximum lease length of no more than 10 years. Each approval should be based on specific criteria for a project to have a beginning and end with clear deliverables. There should be a clear process for an extension if restoration goals have not been met and this process should account for impacts to other users. We support the idea that these projects be issued for a term consistent with the time required to achieve their objective in § 6102.4 (3).
Should the rule constrain which lands are available for conservation leasing?
If conservation leases or stewardship permits will truly support grazing permit rights and mitigate any impacts to grazing allotment holders, these enhancement or restoration projects should be available on all BLM lands. However, we support greater incentives for active management being offered in an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) designation. This principal BLM designation, as described in § 1610.7-2, for public lands where special management is required to protect important natural, cultural, and scenic resources, systems, or processes, or to protect life and safety from natural hazards, should be an area that conservation and outcome-based grazing practices be rewarded. During the land use planning process when authorized officers identify, evaluate, and give priority to these areas, we ask that they consider specific active management practices that could be utilized for restoration under the Special Management Attention criteria. This would result in a more collaborative, partner-based approach that is mutually beneficial and cost-effective.
To be clear, if any of these practices or proposals would conflict with a current or future authorization of a grazing lease that has historically met the four grazing fundamentals of land health, we ask that either the conservation lease be denied or impacts to the grazing allotment holder be identified and they be fully compensated.
We appreciate the standards listed in § 6102.3-1 for the identification of priority landscapes based on land health and watershed condition assessments, restoration success likelihood, partnership opportunities, local benefits, and the prevention of harm to public resources. We ask that an additional criterion be listed in § 6101.5(c) that adds outcome-based grazing as a conservation practice to compliment the multiple use framework for land health and ecosystem resilience.
Should the rule clarify what actions conservation leases allow?
Yes, there should be clear guidelines, objectives, and practices to ensure that these projects meet desirable outcomes without harming other users. Individual stewardship permits or conservation leases should be subject to standards that RACs recommend and based on the best available science for the region. Managed grazing should be considered a management tool in maintaining the health of these resources and ideas such as ‘rewilding’, the process of removing any human or animal husbandry practices from the landscape, should not be allowed as numerous studies have demonstrated that the removal of livestock from brittle environments (the majority of BLM lands) are harmful to the ecosystem. Alternatively, efforts should be taken to develop standards that create a holistic, balanced, and resilient intact landscapes that carry a sustained yield as defined in § 6101.4.
Should the rule expressly authorize the use of conservation leases to generate carbon offset credits?
We cautiously support the allowance of carbon markets offset credits as we understand that carbon markets are nascent and there is much to determine as to the efficacy of such systems. However, prioritizing the health and resiliency of BLM lands through management practices that will increase carbon sequestration and other ecosystem services to prevent extreme wildfire events, ecosystem collapse, watershed damage, and erosion is a valuable service and any income from secondary markets should be used as a credit towards required user fees.
Should conservation leases be limited to protecting or restoring specific resources, such as wildlife habitat, public water supply watersheds or cultural resources?
As mentioned above, each conservation lease or stewardship permit approval should be based off specific aims and not be permitted if they would be incompatible with the reauthorization of an existing use that is achieving the four fundamentals of land health. Authorized officials should consult RACs as well as seek indigenous knowledge to prioritize and incentivize ACECs.
We support embracing a number of factors when determining priority landscapes such as the need to connect valuable wildlife corridors, maintain productive grazing lands, create resilient watersheds, and erosion control to protect vulnerable soils as well as culturally sensitive features. We ask that the positive role that managed grazing can play be strongly considered in restoration prioritization criteria § 6102.3-1 and we greatly appreciate the requirement for the coordination and implementation for the development of holistic restorative actions across BLM programs as described in § 6102.3-2(b)(3) and we strongly ask that the spirit of collaboration be utilized with any approval of a restoration project.
Section 6102.4-2 asks for comments as to the waiving of bonding requirements in certain circumstances and we feel that if there is a situation that bonding requirements are a hardship for an underserved group to provide restoration or mitigation work that there be options for third-party guarantees to ensure that projects will be completed in an acceptable manner. This could be possible through the suggested framework listed in § 6102.5-1 for mitigation banks. RMFU does have concerns however, that oil and gas mitigation efforts as listed in § 6102.4(a)(3) could impact grazing allotments located in other habitat areas and parcels. We ask for the same considerations for conflict and impact to users when granting mitigation projects meant to offset impacts in one parcel for restorative projects in another.
In closing, our member-led policy supports a workable plan whereby federal lands are sustained in a responsible manner using multiple use management and with quality stewardship. We call for flexibility and compensation when necessary to protect family ranchers.
Thank you for considering our comments during this important time that will determine the future health of not only our natural resources, wildlife, and working lands, but also for the stewards of these vital landscapes and the communities that they support. We hope that you will reevaluate this proposed rule and develop strong incentives for coordinated collaboration.
President of Rocky Mountain Farmers Union
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