Think Out Loud

Nearly 60 million acres of BLM land fail to meet agency’s standards for land health

By Sheraz Sadiq (OPB)
May 20, 2024 11:18 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, May 21

The Bureau of Land Management oversees 245 million acres of public land across the U.S. More than 60% of that rangeland is being managed through leased livestock grazing allotments in Oregon and nine other Western states. But according to the nonpartisan Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, livestock grazing is the main reason why nearly 60 million acres of BLM rangeland fail the agency’s own standards for land health, which are used to assess soil and water quality, among other factors. High Country News recently reported on PEER’s findings, which also found that BLM state offices are increasingly relying on a federal loophole to renew grazing permits and leases without environmental review, especially in Oregon, Nevada and Idaho.


Peter Lattin is a landscape ecologist, geospatial analyst in Oregon who was working for a contractor that was hired by BLM in 2010 to conduct regional ecological assessments. He resigned from his position when he was told by BLM officials not to include the impact of livestock grazing on land health assessments. He then shared his concerns with PEER and worked with the organization to obtain BLM records through the Freedom of Information Act. Lattin and PEER used that data to create an interactive map that shows the impact of livestock grazing on public land. Chandra Rosenthal is the director of PEER’s Rocky Mountain office in Denver. They join us to talk about their findings.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees grazing allotments on over 155 million acres in the American West. A lot of that land is failing the agency’s land health standards. That’s according to the agency’s own data. But the analysis didn’t come from the BLM. It came from a nonpartisan group called PEER or Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The group also found that the BLM is increasingly relying on a loophole to renew grazing permits and leases without environmental review, especially in Oregon, Nevada and Idaho. Chandra Rosenthal is the director of PEER’s Rocky Mountain office in Denver. Peter Lattin is a landscape ecologist and geospatial analyst in Oregon who has sifted through this agency data for more than a decade. They both join us now. It’s good to have both of you on the show.

Chandra Rosenthal: Great. Thanks for having us.

Peter Lattin: Yes, indeed.

Miller: Chandra, I want to start with you. And I want to start with this headline number. More than a third of the rangeland that the BLM assessed over the last 26 years failed their own land health standards. What would constitute a failure?

Rosenthal: In 1995, BLM developed regulations that actually define what a land health failure is. So they set up minimum rangeland health management requirements. They’re also known as the standards and guidelines. This is what the agency uses to go out and assess the land. They look at watersheds, ecological processes, water quality and habitat. Then they do actual measurements of the amount of ground cover, the height of certain species. They identify the number of different type of species that are present on the allotment.

Miller: What are the most common reasons that a particular allotment would be deemed a failure?

Rosenthal: By far and away, livestock grazing is the number one reason. There are other causes. Increasingly we see drought as a cause, but invasive species is the second most often attributed cause of failing land health standards.

Lattin: I can add that, among those that fail – allotments that fail that actually provide a cause, a reason, for a failure to meet land health standards – 76% of those failing identify livestock grazing as a significant factor. So, livestock grazing is, far and away, the most frequently cited cause of failure to achieve standards across the country, across the agency grazing lands.

Miller: Peter, these findings of so much BLM land failing its own standards are based on your own observations and work you did for the agency back in 2010. Can you take us back to then? What were you hired to do?

Lattin: Well, I was hired to be a lead in large ecoregional assessments. These were being conducted at regional levels to look at land health and factors that impact them at watershed and regional levels – areas that are ecologically similar. Some of these areas are quite large. For example, Southeastern Oregon is primarily a single ecoregion. So big chunks of land. Our task was to both identify major factors impacting these land health, both currently [that] were at risk and then also to project and conduct some forecasts out for decades to come. The agency wanted to know this so that they could use this information to help inform management practices going out into the future.

Miller: What did you hear from agency officials when you said that livestock grazing had to be included as one of the factors affecting land health?

Lattin: Actually, they did not. They excluded livestock grazing from consideration. That was done because of pressure from stakeholders and concerns by the Washington Office of litigation. They thought that if litigation was brought, these large attachments – which were intended to be used for large-scale planning in the future – would be canceled. So that was the only, the primary, disturbance factor that they singled out as a no-go.

Miller: You eventually resigned from the company you’d been working for, essentially in protest, and then spent years working through various channels – including ultimately successful Freedom of Information Act requests – to get the data that you were seeking and to get the data that, I think we’re now on the third data dump, that the BLM has provided to PEER. What’s been driving you? Why was it important to you to make this data available and to turn it into an interactive map that folks can look at?

Lattin: Well, because I’ve worked as a scientist with various federal agencies. It was important because I knew that livestock was an important factor across the West from having done a lot of remote sensing and aerial photo interpretation, from the Dakotas to the West Coast, and from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. So it was obvious to me that this was a problem that needed to be addressed. I felt that to manage the agency to move forward and to be able to plan and manage our resources, it was critical that somebody got it out there, that the public was able to see these data, and potentially other folks could utilize these data to encourage the agency to pick the cause up again and compile a formal database of their own.


For me, it was very important just because I’d been doing this kind of work for several decades and it had to be done. And PEER has been extremely helpful. This wouldn’t have happened without the support of PEER.

Miller: Chandra, we talked about that headline number, that more than a third of the rangeland that the BLM did assess over the last 26 years failed their health standards. But a ton of land, 36 million acres of public land managed by the BLM, did not even have a land health assessment. Why not?

Rosenthal: Well, first I just want to say that Pete is a real hero. Like many of the employees that work within these agencies, that’s really who the public is depending on to safeguard our important natural resources. By standing up and publicly taking a stand on the issue, it was really all of his hard work that we were able to get this stuff compiled. So anyway, I just think we should all thank Pete and the employees like him that work at BLM.

I think that continues to be a problem at BLM, which is, there’s just not enough people. We don’t think they have enough staff and resources to do the work that they need to do to get all of these allotments assessed. And then, following that, to make the difficult management decisions to change grazing practices on some of these lands that they’ve determined are failing.

Miller: You found that 84% of grazing permits in Oregon were renewed using a kind of loophole. Can you explain how this loophole works?

Rosenthal: Yeah. It’s a congressional rider that was put on to the FLPMA bill, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. That’s the set of regulations that govern the Bureau of Land Management management. This loophole was intended to allow the agency to renew permits, without a land assessment, to deal with the backlog of permits. A lot of commercial livestock operators petitioned Congress to deal with the backlog.

The loophole is 402(c)(2). It’s also called the rider. In Oregon it’s been used, as you said, 84% of the time to renew livestock allotments. These allotments are renewed, the permits are renewed, for another 10 years. Without this NEPA review, there’s really no opportunity for the public to know what’s going on, on public lands. This is a public document, there’s opportunity for comment, and you can see what the participating agencies have said about the allotment. So, yeah, it’s a real problem. You see allotments that have been renewed, yes, for 20 years without having any evaluation.

Miller: What do these land health standards even mean then, in the end? I mean, if a third of the ones that were done, they’re found to be failing, often because of grazing, if a ton of land isn’t looked at to begin with, if there is this huge loophole that more than eight out of 10 allotments in Oregon are using to avoid other kinds of federal oversight, what’s the point of all of this?

Lattin: Well, I guess I can answer that. The backlog started from the very beginning. So even by 2012, they were behind, and they’ve never caught up. So there are allotments, huge allotments, that have and probably never will be assessed. The amount of money that the agency takes in that helps them run these programs at the field office level is a fraction of what it actually takes to manage. So they’re always behind, and they’ll never, at this point, never be able to get the staff levels up to be able to run these assessments.

Miller: But is it also fair to say that there is very little political motivation to increase that money because there’s a possibility that, if there were a much more robust assessment system, then some grazing allotments would be denied?

Lattin: That’s probably true, except what usually occurs is that, again, through the standards and guidelines for grazing administration – that goes hand in hand with the fundamentals, the definition of the fundamentals of rangeland health, that all this that we’re talking about relates to – it allows the field office manager to modify permits to address a specific problem. And then they have to do so very quickly. So, in this case, so long as they address the problem, then they could rethink, and they can renew the permit. So, in a lot of ways, while this picture that we see, it reflects historic assessments. They have yet to conduct a new one, so we don’t know if they’ve made any progress. That is one of the main problems.

Miller: Chandra, I should say we did reach out to the BLM to tell them we’re going to be talking about your latest analysis, and they sent us this statement:

“The BLM’s goal is to manage for healthy lands that support wildlife recreation and other uses in the face of climate change and other challenges. To meet this goal, the BLM is taking meaningful steps to make land health assessments more efficient and effective. The recently finalized Public Lands Rule will apply the fundamentals of land health to not just grazing allotments but to all lands the BLM manages at watershed scale. These assessments will be vital tools for improving overall land health, restoring degraded lands and more efficiently processing permits.”

I have to say, I’m a little confused by the logic here. Your analysis, as we’ve talked about, has shown that year after year the Bureau is falling massively short in evaluating just their rangeland. Are they now saying they’re going to improve the situation by trying to evaluate way more acreage?

Rosenthal: That’s what we think that they’re going to be doing. Yeah, we’re a little confused also. Unless they’re planning to staff up in a tremendous way and, actually, to decide to make significant management changes based on the data that they do acquire, then we [inaudible] this could be a big disaster actually. I mean, the agency is underfunded and understaffed as it is. And, as we have seen, they’re really not transparent with a lot of the data that they have. We had to get this through Freedom of Information Act requests and Freedom of Information Act lawsuits. So, what will happen with this next round of planning that they’re planning to do?

Miller: Chandra Rosenthal and Peter Lattin, thanks so much.

Rosenthal: Thank you.

Lattin: Thank you.

Miller: Chandra Rosenthal is the Rocky Mountain director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Peter Lattin is an Oregon-based landscape ecologist and geospatial analyst.

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