By Phil Taylor
March 30, 2012

The Obama administration yesterday said it supports a pair of Democratic proposals to designate new conservation and wilderness areas in New Mexico and Maine.

Mike Pool, deputy director of the Bureau of Land Management, said Rep. Ben Ray Luján’s (D-N.M.) bill (H.R. 1241) to create a 236,000-acre conservation area in northern New Mexico is the product of many years of local collaboration and would protect both the environment and traditional land uses.

He said the administration also backs a bill (H.R. 2984) by Rep. Michael Michaud (D-Maine) to designate wilderness on 13 islands along the coast of Maine that have been relatively untouched by humans.

Pool and Forest Service Deputy Chief Leslie Weldon expressed support to the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands during a hearing that also focused on bills to streamline grazing permits and name a Northern California mountain.

Luján said his bill would eliminate development threats and ensure traditional land uses including grazing and the gathering of piñon nuts, wild herbs and firewood are preserved.

Moreover, he said, he plans to introduce an amendment to address concerns from some ranching groups that new wilderness or conservation areas would hinder access to repair grazing fences, windmills, tanks, pipelines and other infrastructure.

His bill would also designate more than 20,000 acres of wilderness, which, while barring new roads or motorized access, allows existing grazing activities to continue.

“What we want to do is make sure we’re being very clear about the importance of access to public lands,” Luján told E&E Daily after the hearing. He said his amendment would clarify ranchers have the right to maintain existing roads, fences or irrigation systems. “I think we’re going to find some common ground.”

A letter in January from four stock grower groups urged Luján to include language stating that livestock grazing is one of the purposes of the conservation area and that motorized vehicles and machines may be used to repair or maintain the range.

Erminio Martinez, a rancher who grazes cattle in northern New Mexico, including in a neighboring wilderness area, said critics’ concerns are based on the unfounded fear that new conservation areas will result in more government intrusion. Martinez, who said his family has lived off the land for eight generations, said the bill is important because it would protect the area from being sold off to mining or oil and gas companies.

“The threat that development poses to these traditions would negatively impact the culture, making protections of these lands so critical,” he said.

The bill includes acres surrounding the Río Grande wild and scenic river gorge, which carves through the landscape and reveals basalt rocks beneath the surface, Pool said. “Wildlife species — including bighorn sheep, deer, elk and antelope — bring both hunters and wildlife watchers, while the Río Grande and its tributaries provide blue ribbon trout fishing and other river recreation,” he said.

While Republican leaders have not indicated when they will hold a markup of the bill, Luján said he’s hopeful the measure can soon go before the Natural Resources Committee for a vote. He said it could then be brought before the House under suspension of the rules, a procedure requiring a two-thirds majority that is reserved for noncontroversial measures.

While the House has made little headway on conservation measures, a companion to Luján’s bill in the Senate was among the first to reach that chamber’s floor when it passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on a voice vote in November. Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said they opposed the measure.

Grazing bill

Pool and Weldon said they have concerns with Rep. Raúl Labrador’s (R-Idaho) H.R. 4234, which would double the length of grazing permits and provide regulatory certainty for ranchers who graze cows, sheep and goats on millions of acres of public lands.

The two expressed similar concerns when testifying on a companion bill by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) last week before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee (E&E Daily, March 23).

Labrador said the bill would relieve BLM and the Forest Service of an enormous backlog of expired grazing permits that have been held up by the threat of environmental appeals and lawsuits.

Due to a spike in 10-year permit renewal requests in 1999 and 2000, BLM by the end of fiscal 2012 expects to have a backlog of about 4,200 permits, Pool said. The agency for more than a decade has relied on year-to-year appropriations rider language to reissue grazing permits. Labrador’s bill would make such language permanent.

“The intent of this legislation is to provide more stability to this industry,” Labrador said. “We must alleviate the problems caused by tedious bureaucratic process created only to satisfy an environmental agenda.”

But according to BLM, the bill would require a majority of its 18,000 grazing permits to be renewed under categorical exclusions that exempt them from public review.

The bill would also prevent the agency from halting unsafe grazing activities until appeals and litigation are resolved, which could take years, Pool said.

But he, like Weldon, said he supports the flexibility to issue 20-year permits rather than the 10-year permits now allowed by law. Such permits would be particularly useful in areas of low conflicts where there are no endangered or at-risk wildlife species, he said.