Trump’s environmental review rollback puts ranchers in charge of public lands

*This piece is authored by Talasi Brooks, Staff Attorney at Western Watersheds Project

President Trump’s proposed new rollbacks of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations will not only accelerate destructive infrastructure projects, they will also cut environmental concerns out of decision-making for livestock grazing on millions of acres of public lands.  Where environmental reviews do occur, the new regulations hamstring public participation and give an outsized voice to ranchers and other locally-powerful interests.  That’s why industry voices like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association have been applauding the changes:  They hand over control of the public lands to private ranching interests for a pittance—$1.35 per animal use month—a steal of a deal for the ranchers and a ripoff for the American public.

Livestock on western public lands trample streams, uproot plants, destroy soil crusts, and spread cheatgrass, a highly flammable invasive weed.  Livestock grazing reduces carbon sequestration potential by promoting cheatgrass spread, destroying soil crusts, and tearing out native perennial bunchgrasses.  These effects are driving sage-grouse, pygmy rabbits, native trout, and other native species that rely on ecosystems managed for livestock grazing towards extinction.  It’s a hefty ecological price tag for the public to pay to subsidize a few ranchers.  And NEPA analysis is what ensures these ecological effects are at least considered and made public.

Yet Trump’s new proposed regulations invite agencies to determine that grazing and other resource uses are not “major federal actions” subject to NEPA analysis.  They also get rid of the regulatory requirement that presence of unique geographic areas, sensitive or protected species, scientific controversy, and cumulative impacts on the environment typically warrant full examination in an environmental impact statement in environmental decision-making.  And, they seem to make decisions that an activity is “categorically excluded” from the requirement for full analysis the presumptive result under NEPA, while providing that more detailed environmental assessments do not need to be presented for public review.  These changes will mean that most grazing decisions will be made without public input and without considering environmental impacts to resources many members of the public care about.

It’s not as if public lands grazing is currently subject to excessive scrutiny. The government has been turning a blind eye to the environmental harm caused by livestock grazing for years and Congress has been letting them do it.  In 2015, a rider modified federal law to allow agencies to dodge the requirement that grazing leases undergo environmental review before renewal—permitting them to defer analyses indefinitely while grazing continues unchecked. It also created a new categorical exclusion with a range of circumstances under which the agencies may escape ever having to conduct in-depth environmental analysis for grazing authorizations.

Trump’s NEPA rollbacks exacerbate the effects of these changes.  The proposed regulations guarantee that in the rare instances that agencies do prepare in-depth environmental analyses for grazing permit decisions, all alternatives must meet the ranchers’ goals.  State and local governments in which ranchers may be locally powerful will also have a greater role in shaping NEPA analyses at the outset.  And, environmental protection alternatives may be dismissed as not “reasonable,” with public comments on environmental impacts allowed only after the agency has set its course.

The potential effects of the proposed changes are all the more pernicious because the regulations also purport to constrain judicial review.  Under the new regulations, problems with an agency’s NEPA compliance presented to a court must first have been raised before the agency with specificity.  That will be harder to do when agencies are not required to present draft categorical exclusions or environmental assessments supporting grazing decisions for public review—problems may not become apparent until the document at issue has been finalized.  For decisions deemed categorically excluded, the public may not even know they exist.  And, even where a court finds an agency’s NEPA analysis unlawful, the regulations attempt to limit the relief available to allow the proposed grazing project to proceed anyway.

Trump’s proposed NEPA regulations represent nothing more than a stealth effort to privatize the public lands by putting the ranchers in charge of them, and the American public shouldn’t stand for it. Comments on the proposed changes are due March 10, 2020.


Talasi Brooks is a staff attorney for Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit conservation group working to protect and restore wildlife and watersheds throughout the American West.






  1. idaursine Avatar

    “The potential effects of the proposed changes are all the more pernicious because the regulations also purport to constrain judicial review.”

    Jeez. That’s always the ultimate play, isn’t it. I hope this is challenged vigorously in court. 🙁

  2. Oakley Taylor Avatar
    Oakley Taylor

    This is outrageous! Since when do public lands become private grazing grounds for ranchers? Public lands are for the citizens of this nation, not for livestock to occupy for ranchers to profit off this ruling. We cannot stand for this to happen. Shame on this administration for trying to shove this bill down our throats? This is most definitely NOT in the interest of the public and goes against what we Americans love about our country.

  3. Lyn McCormick Avatar
    Lyn McCormick

    I hope this is challenged vigorously in the courts, too. This is way bigger than PL grazing – it’s the corporate feudal-fascists pirating the resources from the last bastion of potential for market returns, the public domain.
    They have so much idle cash, in the trillions, sitting in global bank accounts waiting for a new market to invest in; i.e. the carbon market. Not to say that there isn’t climate change going on, but they’re capitalizing on that crisis too without having to clean up their act.

    1. Yvette Avatar

      Spot on, Lyn.

  4. Marcua. S Avatar
    Marcua. S

    I bet most US citizens have no idea this is going on .the trade deal with China will make it worse as ranchers have been even more empowered. The media is controlled by them too,otherwise there would be massive protests and calls to Congress
    I don’t believe we are still a democracy. As we have no voice. Our country is run by special interest ie. big ag and oil as well as foreign gov such as china

  5. Joanne Favazza Avatar
    Joanne Favazza

    Trump is doing this for votes and for campaign money. It’s always about him, and him only.

    That’s why he’s so dangerous, and that’s why he needs to go.

    Our beautiful natural heritage–and our democracy–cannot survive another four years of this self-serving sociopath.

  6. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    I remember when I first walked into the BLM office that hired me as a biologist and was taken around to meet the personnel. I got to the chief of resources and he bluntly told me that if ‘I wanted to do real wildlife management I should have joined the boy scouts’. He was not kidding.

    I don’t think that people at large can really comprehend how self centered, pressured and limiting bureaucracies can be. Bureaucracies like the BLM are there to go through the paperwork process, put on a good appearance but not there to provide output if the form better habitat or increased populations of animals like sage grouse. They grease the skids of neo-liberal corporate business. That is why over the years we have witnessed the continued deterioration of the ecological well being of public lands.

    So when the BLM prints stuff like ” through this rule (the new proposed change) the BLM seeks to improve existing land use planning and grazing permitting procedures while simultaneously promoting conservation of public lands” I know the conservation part is just BS. I would say that going along with BLM plans is like going along with co-dependency in a dysfunctional family. It does not change a bad situation. It only becomes worse in time.

    The BLM states it wants to “modernize and streamline the grazing administration regulations and provide greater flexibility for land and resource management” to appease resource users (abusers really), not to make the land better for wildlife.

    About the only suggestion I can think of really is to visit the Center for Biological Diversity’s website and check out their environmental voters guide. No question, the future of public lands is at stake.