By Ryan Zinke
Zeroing In 

Special Treatment for Special Interests is Not Acceptable


Montana and other Western states are blessed with some of the most expansive grasslands on earth, which are optimal for grazing cattle. East and west coast residents do not understand what it takes to care for a ranch; they do not realize the bureaucratic burdens, and they do not care about the costs ranchers pay to stay in compliance. Frankly, they do not understand Montana, but that does not stop them from meddling.

Too many unelected Washington bureaucrats who only think Glasgow is a city in Scotland and Malta is a country in the Mediterranean are making decisions that negatively affect both. Whether it’s the EPA’s Waters of the U.S. rule or the Bureau of Land Management’s planned land-grab over sage grouse, I believe the power to make these decisions should be at the local level, as close to the people as possible. The federal government has run amuck, and I am pushing back.

On January 20, 2016, I met with Hi-Line residents and ranchers in Malta to discuss the potential impacts of the pending Change-in-Use decision for the Flat Creek Allotment. The American Prairie Reserve applied for a number of changes to their grazing permit in February 2015, which includes amendments to the type of livestock on the property (cattle to bison), removal of all interior fencing, and year-round usage. Not only is this a drastic change, it is hard to imagine BLM allowing any of these same allowances for the traditional ranching community.

The process for granting a Change-in-Use permit should be open, fair, transparent, and include the input of local farmers, ranchers, and other stakeholders. Unfortunately, none of this was done in the case of the APR. Many believe the process was purposefully abbreviated and restricted. Frustrated ranchers called my office, spoke with my staff and me. After hearing their concerns, we contacted the BLM and began to push back, doing everything we could to reopen the decision process. Special treatment for special interests is not acceptable. More than 175 concerned stakeholders ended up traveling from across Eastern Montana to Malta so they could share their concerns. Their message was overwhelmingly clear: Free-range bison will do irreparable damage to area ranches and crush the local economy.

In an effort to make the BLM decision process more transparent going forward, I have strongly urged the local BLM work in conjunction with residents and county officials to ensure every detail, from the deadline for the comment or protest period to the eligibility of participants, is clearly communicated and distributed with ample time for maximum public input. In order for the BLM to best perform its duties, the local community must be at the table. These kinds of monumental changes must not move forward without the input of those affected most.

This is not the first time the BLM has failed to consider local stakeholders in decisions. Across the country, the BLM has failed to effectively manage its assets in conjunction with the needs of local communities. Our ranchers, farmers, miners and loggers live and die by the public lands Montana possesses. They are on the front lines of both the preservation and use of our lands. Therefore, their input should not be restricted due to a preconceived notion coming out of Washington.

As Montanans, we have seen first-hand the disastrous effects of poor federal land management. Whether it’s this BLM grazing infraction in Malta or the millions of acres of U.S. Forest Service land burned last summer, I firmly believe Montana suffers the most when proper access and management is not permitted.

The blame cannot be placed fully on the agencies themselves. For decades, Congress has shifted the authority almost entirely out of local control. Now is the time for us to reign in the damages we have created and produce solutions that work. I sit on the House Natural Resources Committee. I have already begun the process to hold the BLM accountable, and I will continue to work with my colleagues in Congress to make sure local communities are no longer ignored during these critical land discussions.

Ryan Zinke is the Republican congressman for Montana's at-large congressional district.


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