As Popeye liked to say: “Well, blow me down!”
When the news came in on December 13th that the Democratic-controlled Senate had passed the $1.1 trillion dollar spending bill complete with a rider that would effectively ban using any fiscal year 2015 funds for listing the Greater Sage Grouse, and also passed the National Defense Authorization Act—complete with provisions from the Grazing Improvement Act—you could have knocked me over with a feather. Having passed both chambers of Congress as of press time, these two pieces of legislation now require only the President’s signature to sign them into law. Given that both bills represent major bipartisan efforts, there is every reason to expect that when the ink you are reading is dry on the page, both bills will have been passed, signed, sealed, and delivered.
But what would these new laws mean for us out here in cattle country?
Let’s start with the spending bill. The spending bill has a provision (or “rider” as Washington folks call them) that prevents the Fish and Wildlife Service from spending any money this fiscal year to “write or issue” listing rules for the Greater Sage Grouse (as well as for the Gunnison, Bi-State, or Columbia Basin sage grouse subspecies, none of which are found in Oregon). This effectively prevents the FWS from issuing a listing decision for the Greater Sage Grouse until the spending bill expires in September 2015. Note, however, that September 2015 is the existing deadline for listing the bird anyway—and so technically this language would only delay a listing by one day. It’s also important to note that this language doesn’t prevent the FWS from reaching a decision on whether the Sage Grouse should be listed, and FWS has signaled its intent to proceed on schedule with reaching a decision. So no, we are not looking at a magic fix to the Sage Grouse issue. However, this rider does signal Congress’s intent to intervene on endangered species listings, and could foretell future interventions in the incoming Republican-controlled Congress. That, in my book, can only be seen as a positive development.
To be absolutely clear—the present rider doesn’t give us an extension on a Sage Grouse listing, and doesn’t guarantee one in the future, either. Although the new Sage Grouse legislation may signal Congress’s interest in injecting some common sense into the Sage Grouse listing schedule, it is absolutely no excuse to slack off on our efforts to prevent a listing. If anything, it’s a reason for us to put our foot to the metal and continue to do everything we can to make sure this bird stays unlisted.
It’s also important to remember that this rider does not in any way affect the BLM’s Sage Grouse RMP Amendment and DEIS. Regardless of the timeline for an endangered listing decision, and what decision is ultimately made, the BLM’s Sage Grouse RMP amendment (the next draft of which we are told will be available for comment in the spring) is something permittees will have to live with once it is made official. So… this is no time for us to take our eyes off the ball, folks. Sharpen up your pencils, and get ready to read and comment (again!) come April or May.
Now, on to the National Defense Authorization Act. The passage of this bill represents a massive victory for our outstanding Public Lands Council team Dustin Van Liew and Marci Schlup in Washington D.C., and we are thrilled to congratulate them. The bill includes key provisions from the Grazing Improvement Act, passage of which has long been a PLC priority. Most importantly, the bill codifies the “grazing rider,” effectively ensuring permittees will have their grazing permits reissued even when the backlog of environmental analyses (NEPA or otherwise) prevents the agency (either the BLM or Forest Service) from completing the required environmental assessment in a timely manner. In short, even if the agency is late with its environmental analysis, you still get your permit reissued. The bill also provides for certain grazing permit renewal decisions and trailing and crossing decisions to be granted categorical exclusions under NEPA. This streamlines the NEPA process and eliminates costly environmental assessments where they are not necessary.
As of press time, it only remains for the President to sign these two bills, which is wholly anticipated. As you read this, I expect we will all be sighing a great sigh of satisfaction as we look forward to a New Year with a little more protection for public lands grazing inked into law.
On a closing note, I’d like to thank all the folks who made the treacherous trek through the icy weather to the OCA Convention in Bend. We had an excellent turnout, and tremendous participation from permittees. Your voices are a crucial “reality check” for the agency folks who spend most of their time in Portland and Salem offices, and there is no substitute for your passion, your perspective, and your experience.
Among the many important issues that were addressed, one item stands out for brief notice. At the Public Lands Committee meeting, attendees engaged in a lengthy discussion over whether or not to support state legislation that would implement a tax on livestock salt and mineral, that would be levied to support Sage Grouse conservation and range improvement efforts in Oregon in order to help prevent a listing of the bird. Such a tax could generate an annual revenue of approximately $400,000, which would be added to an annual $1.2 million dollars earmarked for Sage Grouse conservation and generated by a tax on birdseed. The attendees passed a resolution to support the legislation for a salt and mineral tax. For details on the resolution, please contact OCA treasurer Nathan Jackson or the OCA general office.
Thank you to all who were able to attend. And a joyful and prosperous New Year to all of you out in Oregon’s cattle country!
By OCA Public Lands Committee Staff member, Andy Rieber