Biden officials: Grazing lands could count for conservation goals

By Jennifer Yachnin | 09/28/2021 03:39 PM EST

Cattle grazing in 2017 on an allotment east of Steens Mountain in Oregon. Greg Shine/Bureau of Land Management/Flickr

Millions of acres of public lands leased for grazing livestock should be counted toward the Biden administration’s aggressive conservation pledge, according to top officials with the Interior and Agriculture departments.

While the White House has yet to detail how it will tally land for its “America the Beautiful” initiative — the Biden version of what is commonly known as “30×30,” the goal of conserving 30 percent of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030 — two top officials said today that the count should include active grazing lands used by ranchers for cattle, horses, goats and sheep.

“If we’re going to look at ways to restore and then conserve landscapes and ensure they are more climate resilient, we will need to be working on a lot of those lands with all of you,” Nada Culver, the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management, told attendees at the Public Lands Council annual meeting, which was conducted virtually. The council advocates for livestock grazing on public lands.

“How exactly you would measure each of those 155 million acres we’ll probably need to talk about, but yes, I think it’s got to be part of the effort if we want to succeed,” Culver added, noting that lands counted for conservation purposes could be required to take on new grazing or management practices.

Chris French, deputy chief of the Forest Service’s National Forest System, who appeared with Culver on a panel to discuss the 30×30 effort, agreed that his agency would also see its grazing lands counted for conservation purposes.

“We are providing input that essentially the majority of National Forest System lands meet that conservation goal,” French said, explaining that the agency manages all its forests and grasslands for “long-term ecological sustainability.”

According to a 2016 Forest Service grazing statistics report, the most recent available, the agency permits grazing on 102 million acres, more than half of the land it manages.

Setting aside exceptions like visitor parking lots or “some large mine areas,” French added: “Our input right now is that all of the outdoor lands should be counted within this broader conservation goal.”

Although Interior unveiled the “America the Beautiful” program earlier this year, the agency and its cohorts — including the Agriculture and Commerce departments, along with the White House Council on Environmental Quality — have yet to disclose how the conservation goal will be tallied.

A timeline for the database, which will be called the “American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas,” remains murky (Greenwire, Sept. 17).

According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Protected Areas Database of the United States, only 12 percent of the nation’s lands are permanently protected in a natural state, as are about 23 percent of its oceans.

But those figures do not include multiple-use lands like working forests or those under BLM’s authority (Greenwire, April 16).

Public Lands Council Executive Director Kaitlynn Glover urged both BLM and the Forest Service to include grazing lands, calling it “a tool that each of you respectively and your agencies, your departments can use to achieve those resiliency standards or attributes.”

But Western Watersheds Project Deputy Director Greta Anderson told E&E News that the Biden administration would be making an error by including grazing lands in its conservation tally.

“The bureau and Forest Service actually have no idea what the land health status is on the majority of public lands allotments because they haven’t ever looked, and where the bureau has looked, fully a third of bureau lands are failing land health standards because of livestock grazing,” Anderson said. “Counting lands that aren’t meeting even the minimum standards of ecological resilience defeats the purpose of 30×30’s goals to address the biodiversity crisis. The agencies are fooling themselves if they think most grazed landscapes even come close to being adequately protected. “