Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson, Chairman of the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, moved the Interior and Environment Appropriations Act for fiscal year 2012 through committee today. The bill contains several provisions essential for preserving responsible access to public grazing and is expected to be considered by the full House within the next two weeks.
“Today’s grazing practices are vastly different than the ones of the past. The majority of farmers and ranchers recognize that their livelihood depends on a healthy and sustainable environment, and the BLM and Forest Service do a much better job of weeding out the bad players and protecting sensitive areas,” said Simpson. “As a result of this bill, agencies will be able to focus their energies and resources on protecting the most environmentally sensitive areas while carrying out their mission more effectively.”
The bill also addresses Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) fee payments. “Our ranchers have been under assault by frivolous lawsuits for years, lawsuits that are brought up for no other reason but to obstruct the process in order to control land and water,” said Simpson. “I’m concerned that some groups are basically funding themselves by abusing EAJA, turning suing the government into a cottage industry where taxpayers are the big losers. Our bill shines some light on the EAJA process, requiring detailed reports on the amount of program funds used, the names of the fee recipients, and the hourly rates of attorneys and expert witnesses stated in the applications that was awarded. Until now this information has not seen the light of day, and the public has a right to know how taxpayer dollars are being used.”
Highlights of the bill and report:
- The bill includes language extending the grazing rider that has been in place since FY99, which allows the BLM to extend existing expiring grazing permits while they complete the environmental work required for 10-year renewals. This language was included in the President’s budget request. This bill extends that language for five years.
- Also, requested by the Administration, the bill expands that language by allowing BLM to transfer permits under the same conditions without retriggering the NEPA process. This language will allow the BLM to process approximately 2250 permits per year, fully reducing its permit backlog over four or five years while focusing on better environmental work.
- The bill exempts the process of trailing from NEPA requirements for the years 2011 through 2014. This language will allow ranchers with existing permits to continue moving their cattle to grazing allotments while giving the BLM the opportunity to begin including trailing as part of their environmental analysis when renewing permits.
- The bill includes language preventing the Forest Service from applying the grazing rules that eliminate domestic sheep grazing on the Payette National Forest to other forests for five years while the Forest Service and the USDA complete needed research on the impact that domestic sheep have on wild sheep and to continue development of a vaccine to protect bighorn sheep populations from respiratory disease. Research has recently produced an experimental vaccine that shows promise, but work still needs to be done. Although this bighorn sheep population is not endangered, the bill continues current preventative management, including buffer zones between bighorn sheep and domestic sheep. Similar language is included to prevent BLM from implementing similar grazing restrictions.
- The bill also includes an increase of $16 million for BLM Range Management and a $10 million increase for Grazing Management on the National Forest System.
- The bill includes language requiring litigants to exhaust the administrative appeals process before litigating in federal court on grazing issues.
- The report also includes language directing the Department of the Interior, the EPA, and the Forest Service to provide the Appropriations Committee with detailed information regarding EAJA payments and to make that information publicly available. The information required includes: detailed reports on the amount of program funds used; the names of the fee recipients; the names of the federal judges; the disposition of the applications (including any appeals of action taken on the applications); and the hourly rates of attorneys and expert witnesses stated in the applications that was awarded, for all EAJA fee payments awarded as a result of litigation against any of the Department of Interior bureaus, the EPA, or the Forest Service, or their respective employees. The report shall also include the amounts, outside of EAJA awards, paid in settlement of such litigation. Such information will also be included with each agency’s annual budget submission in the future.