Association of National Grasslands gathers in S.D. for annual meeting |

Association of National Grasslands gathers in S.D. for annual meeting

Bob Harshbarger said one of the main topics of discussion among the congressional representatives at the ANG meeting was the Pautre fire that began on U.S. Forest Service property last spring. Photo by Trace Frost

The dust has settled behind the 36th Annual meeting of the Association of National Grasslands, Inc. (ANG) where interested agriculturalists, political representatives and generational landowners gathered in Lemmon, S.D. to assess the state of the Grasslands and how they can best be utilized and preserved. It’s somewhat remarkable that almost four million acres of the Midwest and West are incorporated in 20 publicly owned National grasslands.

The USDA Forest Service administers this territory, which they describe as, “Flowing east of the Rocky Mountains, from the badlands of North Dakota to north-central Texas, spilling into the Great Plains, are 17 National Grasslands. West of the Rockies, in the Great Basin states of Oregon, California and Idaho, are three more National Grassland expanses. These wind swept seas of grass and wildflowers, have witnessed the pageant of the frontier, the Dust Bowl, and Reclamation.”

In today’s world most people probably aren’t even aware that these areas exist, or how and why they came into being. They’re actually children of the Dust Bowl/Depression era, born of emergency measures such as the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 and the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act of 1935. Those were efforts designed to help settlers and farmers survive, and they allowed the federal government to purchase and restore damaged lands and to resettle destitute families.

The disastrous Homestead experiment teamed with extremes of Nature and proved to the world that most American plains and prairies couldn’t be reinvented as productive farms. Beef cattle, on the other hand, have the miraculous ability to convert coarse forage and grasses into high quality protein for human consumption.

The thirty-some men and women who traveled to the ANG National Meeting are interested in many facets of the beef industry, from varied points of view. Their motto is “Conservators of the Land of Many Uses.”

Agenda items included panel discussions with Congressional staff members and Forest Service representatives; along with briefings on new U.S. Forest Service Planning Rules and the Grazing Improvement Act. Keynote speakers were Jackie King representing Wyoming Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis’ office, along with Ryan Brunner, South Dakota Deputy Commissioner of School and Public Lands. Stacy Revels and Bill Smith represented the South Dakota Department of Agriculture, and the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association was represented by executive director Sylvia Christen and vice president Bill Kluk.

Grazing associations that liaison with the Forest Service on behalf of permittees whose cattle graze the Grasslands – and more especially those permittees themselves — have grave concerns involving the plethora of outside influences allowed to hold sway in more or less “life or death” decisions involving their futures.

Lance Russell of Hot Springs, SD, Legal Counsel for the ANG, updated meeting attendees on issues he and the Executive Board have been working on. One such issue has to do with a new Forest Service Environment Impact Statement regarding prairie dogs. Lance urged ANG membership to give the Executive Board the authority to assist grazing districts which may be negatively impacted by the new EIS, if they request assistance — and that authority was voted in.

Providing a living example of one of Russell’s concerns, Tom Whitford, District Forest Service Ranger for Thunder Basin out of Douglas, Wyo. discussed the prairie dog amendment in Wyoming. He said his office had received 58,000 comments, but only about 200 of those comments were considered substantive and some were from people who were not even US citizens. Many participants in the meeting pointed out that, when reviewing comments for scoping periods, “the permittee’s comments should carry more weight than someone who has no viable interest in the grasslands or may even live in a different country.”

Bob Mountain, rangeland specialist based out of Laramie, Wyo. and Washington DC discussed various issues, one of which was updating the Forest Service Range Management Manual and Handbook. Tom Troxel, who’s with the Intermountain Forest Association, also addressed that issue. Cattlemen in attendance commented on the difficulties such documents – which are very different from plans used before 2012 — introduced into their already overworked schedules.

ANG president elect Bob Harshbarger of Newcastle, Wyo. spoke of the difficulties involved in “planning in collaboration with all the different entities.” He said, “In forest planning, states and counties will be cooperative agencies with Forest Service” and he wonders, “Will it work, when we’re faced with using ‘adaptive management’ in the midst of all the issues of local versus national interest?”

Bob Mountain acknowledged that not every law that has been passed since Bankhead-Jones honors the original intent of that law. He told the group he fully understands permittees’ position in wanting to keep grazing the top priority. The problem, he pointed out, is that “so many layers have been added on top of Bankhead-Jones that no solution is simple because it has become such a complex issue.” In spite of that, Mountain’s priority is to keep sustainable ranches and ranchers on the grasslands.

Another major issue of concern ANG meeting participants discussed was the escaped fire disaster last year in the Grand River Grasslands. During that incident a planned 130-acre prescribed burn ran out of control, resulting in the loss of 14,000 acres of grass in two states.

Senator Hoeven’s representative Jon Cameron spoke of that damage, as did Lance Russell, who updated members on different areas across the grasslands where the Forest Service has wanted to do prescribed burns, even after the escaped-fire disaster of 2013. Russell assured the group that “ANG is ready to help grazing associations that may be affected by such proposed action by the Forest Service.”

During the NGA business meeting and election of officers the group voted to retain Mark Tubbs of Edgemont, S.D. for a second term as president, Bob Harshbarger for a second term as president-elect. They nominated and voted in Dan Anderson for vice president. F

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