BLM pressed in committee on fire, sage grouse and grazing

Posted: May 10, 2013

Written by

Manuel Quinones, E&E Daily

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who holds the reins in the House over Interior Department spending, urged the Bureau of Land Management yesterday to boost its focus on wildfire management as a means of protecting the imperiled sage grouse.

Republicans like Simpson have long called on the Obama administration to protect the grouse from fire rather than focus on limiting mining, drilling or other public land uses.

Simpson, chairman of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, urged BLM acting chief Neil Kornze to be more "proactive rather than reactive" with fire.

Simpson said a grouse listing under the Endangered Species Act "would be devastating across the West." He added, "Tell me where we are to try to prevent this listing."

Kornze responded, "We're amending nearly 70 land use plans across the West. A few of them have come out. We are doing 15 different tranches."

When subcommittee ranking member Jim Moran (D-Va.) asked about the effect of climate change on the work of BLM, Kornze noted the increase in invasive plants. "And also fires, and that relates back to the invasive species," he said, adding that different plants mean faster fire cycles.

"Suppression costs continue to go up and up and up" -- something that takes away money from prevention and preparedness, Kornze said.

The White House in its fiscal 2014 budget request is asking Congress for $1.2 billion for BLM, an increase of $32.6 million or 2.9 percent above the 2012 enacted level.

Kornze said the agency had taken a hit from not only sequestration but also other spending cuts. "It's the equivalent of eliminating almost an entire state, one of our state programs," he told appropriators during a hearing yesterday.

Kornze said the cuts would have an effect on permitting and leasing. He said tighter budgets would also affect the effort to reduce the backlog of grazing permits.

"We need to do better," he said, noting a 5,000-permit backlog. "We are hopeful we will be able to issue a higher number of grazing permits in the next few years."

Simpson pounced on a proposal to introduce a $1 grazing administration fee per "animal unit month" rather than by permit.

Simpson asked Kornze, "You think a 74 percent [cost] increase in one year is OK?"

The acting BLM chief responded, "We simply have to find ways to keep going with the core functions."

At one point during the hearing, Moran said about grazing fees, "There may be significant underpricing."

But Simpson said, "We need to plan over the long haul instead of a 74 percent increase over one year."

Simpson also wanted to know whether the mounting lawsuits against BLM, a key focus for GOP lawmakers, were affecting the agency's ability to tackle priorities, including the grazing permit backlog.

"We do have a substantial impact from litigation in this agency more than others," Kornze said. "It has an impact on everything we do. So my quick answer is yes."

Simpson asked, "Is someone in the department looking at that?"

Kornze responded, "I redirected my team to make sure we have a system in place to track litigation."

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