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Trump’s Environmental Review Rollbacks Will Put Ranchers in Charge of Public Lands

President Trump’s proposed new rollbacks of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations will not only accelerate destructive infrastructure projects, they will also cut environmental concerns out of decision-making for livestock grazing on millions of acres of public lands.  Where environmental reviews do occur, the new regulations hamstring public participation and give an outsized voice to ranchers and other locally-powerful interests.  That’s why industry voices like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association have been applauding the changes:  They hand over control of the public lands to private ranching interests for a pittance—$1.35 per animal use month—a steal of a deal for the ranchers and a ripoff for the American public.

Livestock on western public lands trample streams, uproot plants, destroy soil crusts, and spread cheatgrass, a highly flammable invasive weed.  Livestock grazing reduces carbon sequestration potential by promoting cheatgrass spread, destroying soil crusts, and tearing out native perennial bunchgrasses.  These effects are driving sage-grouse, pygmy rabbits, native trout, and other native species that rely on ecosystems managed for livestock grazing towards extinction.  It’s a hefty ecological price tag for the public to pay to subsidize a few ranchers.  And NEPA analysis is what ensures these ecological effects are at least considered and made public.

Yet Trump’s new proposed regulations invite agencies to determine that grazing and other resource uses are not “major federal actions” subject to NEPA analysis.  They also get rid of the regulatory requirement that presence of unique geographic areas, sensitive or protected species, scientific controversy, and cumulative impacts on the environment typically warrant full examination in an environmental impact statement in environmental decision-making.  And, they seem to make decisions that an activity is “categorically excluded” from the requirement for full analysis the presumptive result under NEPA, while providing that more detailed environmental assessments do not need to be presented for public review.  These changes will mean that most grazing decisions will be made without public input and without considering environmental impacts to resources many members of the public care about.

It’s not as if public lands grazing is currently subject to excessive scrutiny. The government has been turning a blind eye to the environmental harm caused by livestock grazing for years and Congress has been letting them do it.  In 2015, a rider modified federal law to allow agencies to dodge the requirement that grazing leases undergo environmental review before renewal—permitting them to defer analyses indefinitely while grazing continues unchecked. It also created a new categorical exclusion with a range of circumstances under which the agencies may escape ever having to conduct in-depth environmental analysis for grazing authorizations.

Trump’s NEPA rollbacks exacerbate the effects of these changes.  The proposed regulations guarantee that in the rare instances that agencies do prepare in-depth environmental analyses for grazing permit decisions, all alternatives must meet the ranchers’ goals.  State and local governments in which ranchers may be locally powerful will also have a greater role in shaping NEPA analyses at the outset.  And, environmental protection alternatives may be dismissed as not “reasonable,” with public comments on environmental impacts allowed only after the agency has set its course.

The potential effects of the proposed changes are all the more pernicious because the regulations also purport to constrain judicial review.  Under the new regulations, problems with an agency’s NEPA compliance presented to a court must first have been raised before the agency with specificity.  That will be harder to do when agencies are not required to present draft categorical exclusions or environmental assessments supporting grazing decisions for public review—problems may not become apparent until the document at issue has been finalized.  For decisions deemed categorically excluded, the public may not even know they exist.  And, even where a court finds an agency’s NEPA analysis unlawful, the regulations attempt to limit the relief available to allow the proposed grazing project to proceed anyway.

Trump’s proposed NEPA regulations represent nothing more than a stealth effort to privatize the public lands by putting the ranchers in charge of them, and the American public shouldn’t stand for it.

Comments on the proposed changes are due March 10, 2020.

Talasi Brooks is a staff attorney for Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit conservation group working to protect and restore wildlife and watersheds throughout the American West.