Zinke’s Outcome-Based Grazing Initiative Raises Questions

Ryan Zinke
Ryan Zinke (Wikipedia)

President Donald Trump’s pick to manage the U.S. Department of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, is promoting a new “outcome-based” livestock management initiative on the public lands managed by the department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The agency has solicited its grazing permittees to submit their ranching operations for nomination to be among the 6 to 12 projects nationwide that will be part of this “demonstration program.” The stated purpose of the initiative is, “to show that livestock grazing on the public lands can operate under a more flexible framework than is commonly used in order to better reach agreed upon habitat or vegetation goals.” It might sound good, but, as always, the devil is in the details.

The BLM’s announcement of the initiative raised an immediate red flag because it included a statement from Zinke wherein he claimed that, “Farmers and ranchers know the wildlife and the land they work better than anyone.” Really? They know it better than the department’s professional wildlife biologists? And if ranchers know so much, then how come livestock grazing has done more damage to wildlife habitat on public lands than all other commodity uses combined? (Grazing is far more ubiquitous on public lands than mining, drilling, and tree cutting.)

The obvious message behind Zinke’s initiative is that the BLM’s current management of public lands grazing is unfair to ranchers. How? They don’t specifically say, other than to imply that it’s too rigid. The BLM explained that, “Grazing authorizations typically emphasize process and prescription. The new authorizations will instead emphasize ecological outcomes, allowing livestock operators more flexibility to make adjustments in response to changing conditions such as drought or wildland fire.” So it seems they believe that a proven prescription to achieve a desired ecological outcome is bad because it’s too strict, while more flexibility will magically provide an alternative to removing livestock from public land that has burned or is experiencing drought.

The BLM’s announcement also said that Zinke’s initiative will give local “stakeholders” a say in these demonstration projects, but it didn’t explain what that meant. Under existing federal law, the agency is required to employ the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) public planning process when it implements a new livestock management plan for a grazing allotment. The NEPA process is important because it provides the general public with their only significant opportunity to provide input into livestock management on public lands. Zinke’s initiative is a demonstration project, so it’s unclear if NEPA applies, but it seems they are trying to invent a new public participation process, when a good one already exists.

I called the BLM’s national office on November 6 to ask them if the general public will have any opportunities to participate in the formulation of these new “flexible” grazing management plans. I was told that they don’t know, and that I should call my state BLM office to ask that question. So then I called the Arizona BLM office. They told me they don’t know either because they haven’t received any direction yet from the national office.

Perhaps my inability to get an answer about Zinke’s grazing initiative is simply because it’s a new program and the BLM hasn’t sorted out the details. But it’s a proposal from the Trump administration, and Donald Trump has already proven to be the most anti-environment president in modern history, and a threat to the perpetuation of the multiple use doctrine on our public lands. So I have good reason to fear that the general public’s opportunity to participate in this demonstration program will be restricted. It’s important that it’s not, because the BLM manages more than 21,000 public lands grazing allotments on millions of acres across the West and they plan to expand the use of this new process if they deem it to be “successful.”


On March 28, 2018, the BLM announced  announced 11 demonstration projects in six states for the Trump administration’s outcome-based grazing authorizations initiative.

Dakota Access Pipeline Victory Only Temporary

Dakota Access Pipeline
Oil Pipeline Construction (Wikipedia)

Protestors trying to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota were victorious on December 4, 2016, when the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers refused to permit the pipeline to carry dirty Canadian tar sands oil beneath Lake Oahe.  The U.S. State Department had previously approved the pipeline with a controversial determination that it wouldn’t substantially increase greenhouse gas emissions.

The protests against the DAPL began in April when members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe established the Sacred Stone Camp to accommodate pipeline protestors near the mouth of the Cannonball River, where it empties into the lake. The primary objective of the protestors was to protect the lake from oil spills because it’s the source of the tribe’s water supply.

They used the slogan, “Water is Life.” But their protest soon grew into much more, and became a worldwide focal point for indigenous rights and climate change activists. Thousands of people joined the camp, including representatives from hundreds of tribes, making it the largest gathering of Native Americans in more than a century. About 2,000 veterans of the U.S. military also traveled to the camp intent on forming a human shield to protect the protestors from police attacks.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

The Corp of Engineers explained they were denying a pipeline easement beneath the lake so they could conduct a full-blown environmental impact statement (EIS) in which alternative routes would be explored. An EIS is the most rigorous type of environmental study mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which was signed into law by Republican President Richard Nixon in 1970. NEPA requires federal agencies to complete environmental studies of all their projects, using a public participation process that analyzes the environmental effects of various alternatives.

The Corp of Engineers has a say in whether a pipeline can be permitted beneath Lake Oahe because it has jurisdiction over public waterways and the lake is a reservoir on the Missouri River. The Corp had already completed an environmental assessment (EA) for the DAPL, a less rigorous type of NEPA study that’s typically used for projects with fewer significant issues. But the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of the Interior, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation considered an EA to be inadequate for this project, and asked the Corp to complete an EIS.

The incoming Trump administration, however, will probably try to make the Corp reverse their decision to conduct an EIS, or even worse, work with the Republican-controlled Congress to revoke or eviscerate NEPA. This would have serious consequences on U.S. public lands administered under the multiple use doctrine by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The Forest Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, manages the nation’s 154 national forests and 20 national grasslands – comprising about 193 million acres. The BLM, an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior, manages about 30 million acres, including 221 wilderness areas and 23 national monuments. NEPA is the primary mechanism by which Americans participate in the management of these lands because it requires federal land management agencies to conduct publicly reviewed environmental studies for their plans and projects. Without NEPA, the public would have little or no effective input on proposed mining operations, drilling operations, timber cuts, recreational activities, or livestock grazing schemes.

The scope of the potential danger is best illustrated by taking a closer look at the situation in regards to livestock grazing on public lands. The BLM administers more than 21,000 public lands grazing allotments, while the Forest Service has almost 6,000 grazing permittees. Public lands grazing is, by far, the most ubiquitous use of U.S. public lands, occurring on more than 200 million acres, mostly in the West. Subsequently, it’s also the commercial activity that inflicts the most widespread ecological damage on public lands. Even with NEPA, the public typically gets to review and comment on a grazing operation just once every 10 years – the term of a federal grazing permit. Without NEPA, even that modest opportunity would be gone.

But death of NEPA as we know it would do more than threaten the ecological health of hundreds of millions of acres of public lands. As mentioned above, a NEPA study must also be conducted when a proposed project might adversely affect a public waterway, even when the project is located on private land.

These are just some of the examples of the importance of the National Environmental Policy Act. It’s often been referred to as the environmental Magna Carta because its stated purpose is to “encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation.” If the Trump administration and the Republican Congress are allowed to neutralize NEPA, the U.S. will have crossed over an ideological threshold to a dark domain where the only thing that really matters is money.


In January of 2017 newly elected President Donald Trump issued an executive order to make the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers reverse their decision under the Obama administration to complete a full-blown environmental impact statement (EIS) of alternative routes for the DAPL, and then had them issue a permit to allow the pipeline to be drilled beneath Lake Oahe.

On June 14, 2017, federal judge James Boasberg ruled that the Corp of Engineers was, indeed, required to complete an EIS for the DAPL on the Standing Rock reservation. The pipeline, however, had already been completed in April and the judge didn’t order it to be shut down while the EIS is completed.

On April 10, 2019, Pres. Trump signed two executive orders designed to make the construction of new oil pipelines easier. One order directs the Environmental Protection Agency to implement new rules to make it more difficult for states to stop new pipelines by invoking the Clean Water Act. The other one transfers authority for the approval of new international pipelines from the State Department to the president.

There Are No Rational Libertarians

Gary Johnson and William Weld - 2016 Libertarian party candidates
Gary Johnson and William Weld – 2016 Libertarian candidates for president and vice-president (Wikipedia)

Many American voters are dissatisfied with the 2016 presidential candidates of the two major parties – Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump. Some of these disaffected voters are saying they will refuse to vote for either one. But others are saying they might vote for a third party candidate.

The third and fourth largest political parties in the U.S., respectively, are the the Libertarian Party and the Green Party. The 2016 Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate Gary Johnson is gaining support from some unhappy Republicans because he formerly served as a Republican Governor of New Mexico.

Furthermore, many of the Libertarian Party’s policies are similar to Republican policies. The Libertarian Party platform, for example, opposes gun control, proposes phasing out Social Security, and demands an end to federal deficit spending. But it also supports LGBT rights, the decriminalization of marijuana, and a women’s right to choose an abortion.

The party’s focus on expanding personal liberty has created an odd array of political positions. But the biggest problem with Libertarian Party policies is their belief that free, unregulated markets are a panacea. Their economic liberty platform states, “A free and competitive market allocates resources in the most efficient manner.” Any question about what they mean by free markets is answered with a subsequent explanation that, “The only proper role of government in the economic realm is to protect property rights, adjudicate disputes, and provide a legal framework in which voluntary trade is protected.”

History has repeatedly shown that this isn’t true. A study of the Progressive Era, the Great Depression, and the recent Great Recession provides plenty of evidence that markets must be regulated for the common good. The elimination of government regulations, for instance, would make it easier for companies to use unfair practices to eliminate competitors, emit pollution, or exploit natural resources in ways that damage the environment – to name just a few of the bad things that could happen.

So what’s the real reason that Libertarians, and many right-wing Republicans, are promoting this false narrative about free markets? One clue is that David Koch was the Libertarian Party’s 1980 vice-presidential candidate. David, along with his brother Charles, are the billionaire brothers that have been bankrolling Libertarian and similar thinking Republican local and national political candidates across the U.S. Their corporation, Koch Industries, is involved in the fossil fuels industry and other enterprises that are affected by government environmental regulations.

The conservative think tanks financially supported by the Kochs are also distributing talking points that go beyond complaints about regulations. Their imaginary utopia of a free market economy would also be free from government intervention in the form of planning. History has shown this is a ridiculous goal too. Programs initiated by the government have virtually eliminated several contagious diseases, smoking has been reduced, astronauts have gone to the moon and back, and the Internet has improved our lives. And, again, these are just to name a few.

“Your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.” – John B. Finch

The Libertarian condemnation of all government involvement in the economy becomes more irrational every day, as the U.S. population rose by 2.4 million during the last year and now exceeds 322 million. On top of that, the speed of technological innovation continues to increase. In other words, there are complicated new challenges constantly arising that cannot be solved with a laissez-faire market strategy.

Libertarians like to say they are against “big government.” They usually mean they don’t like taxes, but they also complain that government is inefficient. Big government, however, is a different thing than wasteful government, and a lot of government inefficiency these days is caused by the purposeful underfunding of government agencies by conservatives. It’s called “starving the beast” wherein they appropriate less money than an agency needs to properly function, and then point to the disfunction they created as justification for eliminating programs they don’t like. A good example of this the way Republicans have been starving public lands management agencies to try and justify the privatization of public lands.

Another contradiction in libertarian thinking is the assumption that a reduction in the size of the government will create more personal freedom. But neutering the government would mean that large corporations would, in effect, become our de facto rulers. Corporations aren’t democratic organizations, and are primarily concerned with generating profits – not promoting the common good.

The Libertarian Party’s myopic focus on personal liberty discounts the reality that people must work together in a civilized society and compromise in order to solve problems. Tackling the potentially catastrophic issue of manmade climate change, for example, cannot be accomplished by simply relying on the free market. The Libertarian Party will never be more than an obscure historical footnote unless they temper their ideological goals with some reality.

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