In a case watched closely by ranchers and environmentalists, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld 1995 grazing regulations for public lands, including about 6.7 million acres in California controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.
Ranchers challenged Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's power to impose the new rules, which ranchers said would raise their expenses and threaten their livestock businesses. But a unanimous Supreme Court, interpreting the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act, 43 U.S.C. §315, said that the changes were not as significant as ranchers feared and that the Interior secretary did not exceed his authority.
The court considered three regulatory changes made by Babbitt that changed the definition of "grazing preference," permitted people who are not in the livestock business to get grazing permits, and gave title for all future permanent range improvements to the federal government. The grazing preference issue was foremost for the ranchers, who said they have relied on the previous regulations to establish businesses and qualify for credit. The 1995 regulations make future grazing subject to "an applicable land use plan."
But Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the court, said ranchers were never guaranteed grazing rights into perpetuity and noted that the secretary has always had the authority under the Taylor act to withdraw rangeland from gazing use.
As for who gets grazing permits, Breyer wrote, "The new change is not as radical as the text of the new regulation suggest. … Those in the business continue to enjoy a preference in the issuance of grazing permits." Ranchers fear that environmentalists will buy up grazing rights only to sit on the land. However, the court noted, "New regulations allowing issuance of permits for conservation use were held unlawful by the Court of Appeals and the Secretary did not seek review of that decision."
As for the improvements, the secretary has the right to grant the federal government ownership, but permit holders can still own removable improvements, such as corrals, feeders, chutes and troughs, the court held.
The case is Public Lands Council v. Babbitt, No. 98-1991, 00 C.D.O.S. 3782, 2000 Daily Journal 5055.