Ag, water issues take center stage at meeting

Tipton warns livestock group of federal overreach

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton addresses the Southwest Colorado Livestock Association meeting Saturday morning. Enlargephoto

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton addresses the Southwest Colorado Livestock Association meeting Saturday morning.

Local politicians and public lands officials covered a variety of issues, rules, and new laws during the Southwest Colorado Livestock Association annual meeting at the Cortez Elks Club on Saturday morning.

Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Cortez) gave an informed report of legislation he supports that will ease regulations for ranching and protect water rights in the state.

"The government can be a stumbling block to agricultural business we need to grow the economy," he said. "We are at great risk if we can't feed the country, and rules and regs inhibit us from doing so. What agriculture does for this country cannot be overstated."

He said an effort to stop federal land agencies from acquiring water rights as a condition for renewing permits for ski areas and ranching allotments was defeated. "But they are trying to adjust the rule, so it is still a threat," Tipton said.

He is sponsoring the Protecting our Water Rights Act, a bill that protects the priority water rights system in Colorado, and "keeps control of our water out of the hands of bureaucrats."

He also supports legislation that improves protection of grazing rights on public lands and gives county government the authority to mitigate fire dangers on local forests through selective logging. Tipton elaborated on a proposed legislation he supports called the Reins Act that attempts to monitor influential rules mandated internally by federal agencies.

"It says that any regulation that has a $50 million impact nationwide, then Congress must get involved," he said.

He cited as an example a rule proposed by labor regulators that would have limited what kind of work farm kids could do, including preventing them from handling mature animals, driving machinery, or working near hay stacks more than 6 feet tall.

"Tell a 4-H kid at the fair he can't handle a farm animal," Tipton said, adding the labor law idea was scrapped, "but it is this type of government overreach we have to look out for."

Private land lost

Montezuma County Commissioner Keenan Ertel wondered what could be done about the Land Water Conservation Fund that earmarks money for public land agencies to purchase private land, taking it off the property tax rolls.

"In the Canyons of the Ancients, they purchased the Wallace and Rutherford ranches," he said, "but say they don't have enough money for environmental studies on ranching allotments so they can be permitted for livestock."

Tipton responded that federal agencies need approval from the Colorado legislature to purchase private land, removing them from property tax rolls.

That has not been done, and we are looking into it," he said.

Gayel Alexander responded that the perception of lost property taxes revenues from government buyouts can be overblown.

"I asked the BLM to purchase one of those ranches, and it only affected the county tax rolls by $160," she said. "They put the property into a grazing permit. I can still run my cows in Yellow Jacket Canyon, and it is also open to all of us."

Grazing reform

Brice Lee, president of the National Public Lands Council, and lobbyist for farm and ranch policy, gave an overview of pending bills in the U.S. Congress.

A House grazing bill streamlines regulations, extends the public lands allotment permit from 10 to 20 years and eliminates some overlapping environmental reviews.

"The next challenge is getting it through the Senate," Lee said. "We have worked for four years to get these changes and feel optimistic."

He said a key problem that needs solving is that when environmental groups file lawsuits against renewed ranching permits and win, the government has to pay their legal fees.

"That money comes out of the public lands budget and takes away money used to manage local grazing allotments," Lee said.

Lee was also critical of recent campaign by environmental groups to file hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests to local land agencies for grazing allotments data.

"The rangeland staff has to supply the info for nothing, taking away their time for grazing management," he said. "This bill alleviates some of these problems and we need your support to get it passed."

BLM allotments

At the local level, BLM officials reported progress on opening up grazing allotments in the area.

Rangeland management specialist Mike Jensen explained the Flodine and Yellow Jacket allotments, closed since 2005, will be re-issued this spring, with cattle on the ground expected by fall 2014.

"There has been a lot of interest," Jensen said. "We want to make sure it is a solid decision, because there are folks out there who don't want us to reissue the permits and will challenge us if we miss something."

Qualifying criteria for applicants and information about the permit will be published in local newspapers and online soon, he said.

Derek Padilla, District Ranger for the San Juan Forest, said budget cuts have limited required range improvement work on the forest leading to fewer grazing permits.

"Before we could keep up, but it is becoming more and more difficult with decreased budgets," he said.

Range assessments take time and money, he said, and pressure from environmental groups is also a factor, Padilla said.

"Under the Rescission Act, all active allotments must be current under NEPA," he said. "We don't want to put ranchers on allotments that are vulnerable to challenges."

Other issues touched on were the drought, the recently passed Farm Bill, sheep herding, and the Gunnison Sage Grouse proposed listing under the Endangered Species Act. Public comment is over and the decision by the US Fish and Wildlife Service on whether to list the Gunnison Sage Grouse is scheduled for March 31.

Officials were encouraged with improved cooperation with local federal land agencies, noting that local officials have their hand tied policies they cannot control.

"Stay in contact with local agencies, go to meetings, stay involved," Lee said. "It is just as important as vaccinating or culling animals. It takes time, money and effort, but it is a part of doing business."