Public Lands Law "More of the Same" for Some Rural Americans

Aug 23, 2019  | 6 min  | Ep4501

The White House recently made a change to how federal agencies apply the Endangered Species Act which could shift how forest management is carried out.

Federal management has a big influence for those who use government land for their livelihood, or just for fun.

Josh Buettner has more in our Cover story.  Contact:

Earlier this year, Congress passed the most sweeping land conservation bill in a decade.  In an age of bitterly divided government, leadership celebrated the extensive bi-partisan accomplishment.

Sen. Mitch McConnell/R-Kentucky: “The lands bill is the product of over 100 pieces of legislation addressing the management and preservation of some of our nation’s most precious natural areas.  It touches every state, features the input of a wide coalition of our colleagues, and has earned the support of a broad, diverse coalition of many advocates for public lands’ economic development and conservation.”

Some environmental and outdoor groups see the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act – named in honor of the longest serving Congressman in U.S. history – as a win, particularly with its permanent authorization of conservation funding through fees collected from offshore energy producers who drill in federal waters.

Others remain skeptical of the new measure.  Though the law restricts over 370,000 acres from mineral extraction, the Trump Administration has promoted mining, oil and gas development on western public lands in the past.  The acting Director of the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management also has, previous to his appointment, advocated selling off federally owned public lands the agency oversees.

President Donald Trump: “This law will give countless Americans the chance to enjoy the natural wonders of our country.”

The Public Lands Law establishes five new national monuments, expands several national parks, and protects millions of acres and hundreds of miles of wild rivers from sea to shining sea.   

Arlene Jackson/National Park Service/Colorado National Monument: “The only way that you would see cattle grazing is if in the executive order or in the enabling legislation that Congress put together.  If there was a specific mention that cattle were okay, in this site, then you would see it.”

Many ranchers in the American west employ public lands to feed their herds and livestock grazing is mentioned several times in the law’s accompanying documentation.  While pre-established rights are largely grandfathered in, land swaps and other government acquired terrain in the future could allow officials to let federally issued grazing permits expire.  Some ranching advocates say legal battles – which take time and money – could be a cattlemen’s only recourse if they are forced to prove they possess the Congressionally-mandated original surface occupancy and cultivation rights. Those same ranchers fear an uphill battle against what they describe as decades of bureaucratic moves and sue-and-settle litigation which has muddied the winding trail of legal precedent.

For some making their living on or near public lands and have been among those pushing back against perceived government overreach for years, the new legislation is more of the same.

Mike Skidmore/Owner – Butte Propane/Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico: “Back in 2010, the United States Forest Service began doing a reassessment of the way they manage the forests and everything, and they began to close roads that they deemed were not necessary for access to the country.  Now there are over 4,000 miles of roads closed in the Gila National Forest that were open.”

Mike Skidmore owns Butte Propane in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico – which caters primarily to farmers who use the fuel to power irrigation pumps for watering the region’s arid cropland.

Nearly a decade ago, Skidmore, a proponent of multiple use western land policy, formed Keep Our Forest Open, a non-profit group opposing what they describe as natural resource bureaucracy.  Claiming a registration roll of almost 2,000 people from across the Southwest, the organization has scrutinized actions taken by the U.S. Forest Service using its legal powers to append Congressional wilderness designations. The special classification keeps forested and rural areas in primitive conditions.

Since the enactment of the legislation, 1.3 million acres have been designated as wilderness under the Conservation, Management and Recreation Act.  Close to one-third of the nearly 3 million acres in southwestern New Mexico’s Gila National Forest had already been classified as wilderness decades before the new law passed.

Mike Skidmore/Owner – Butte Propane/Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico: “Only Congress can designate a wilderness, but they’ve been doing this by fiat by saying we need to close this road because there’s an endangered species or water issue or whatever it is.  All kinds of people use the forest.  And more and more they’re trying to crowd people out, including ranchers.  They’ve reduced their grazing allotments.  They can’t run as many cattle.  And that’s one of the reasons we’ve seen these larger forest fires.”

Skidmore and others claim the US Forest Service’s transition from managing timber reserves to protecting wildlife habitat leaves fuel for forest fires in place.  Many across the Southwest believe that grazing cattle on federal land helps mitigate fire risk because livestock eat dry brush and grasses.

In a statement to Market to Market, the U.S. Forest Service Southwestern Region concurred with Skidmore on Congressional authority, adding that the inventory of Gila Forest lands are currently being evaluated for further wilderness suitability, but that it is a public process which allows citizens to help shape future outcomes.

Officials also pointed to what they described as well-publicized road closures in 2015 which were the result of a travel management decision aligning the agency with the National Environmental Protection Act.  But through collaboration with communities in and around Gila, those revisions have resulted in tweaks to corresponding systems, allowing the opening of some roads and closure of others to suit resident needs.

For Market to Market, I’m Josh Buettner.

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