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Public Lands Council v. Babbitt

Citation: 30 ELR 20566
No. No. 98-1991, 120 S. Ct. 1815/50 ERC 1481/(U.S., 05/15/2000) aff'd

The Court holds that three 1995 U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) amendments to the federal grazing regulations neither violate the Taylor Grazing Act nor exceed the Secretary of the Interior's authority under that Act. The Court first holds that the new definition of "grazing privileges" does not violate the Taylor Grazing Act's requirement that grazing privileges be adequately safeguarded. The new definition of "grazing preference" omits reference to a specified quantity of forage—specifically animal unit months—and further requires that permitted forage must be allocated by or under an applicable land use plan. The wording of the Taylor Grazing Act makes clear that ranchers' interest in permit stability is not absolute, and that the Secretary is free reasonably to determine just how, and the extent to which, "grazing privileges" shall be safeguarded, in light of the Act's basic purposes. Further, the pre-1995 system that the ranchers seek to safeguard did not offer them anything like absolute security. The Secretary had the power to cancel, modify, or decline to review individual permits, including the power to do so pursuant to the adoption of a land use plan and, therefore, the ranchers' diminishment-of-security point is at best a matter of degree. Moreover, the new definitional regulations by themselves do not automatically bring about a self-executing change that would significantly diminish the security of granted grazing privileges.

The Court next holds that the elimination of the words "engaged in the livestock business" from regulations that determine who may hold grazing permits does not undermine the requirement that the DOI grant permits to graze livestock. The omission, standing alone, cannot change the statute, and a regulation promulgated to guide the Secretary's discretion in exercising his authority under the Act need not also restate all related statutory language. Ultimately it is both the Act and the regulations promulgated thereunder that constrain the Secretary's discretion in issuing permits and the statute continues to limit the Secretary's authority to issue permits to bona fide settlers, residents, and other stock owners. Further, the change will not lead to widespread issuance of grazing permits to stock owners who are not in the livestock business. The regulations specify that regular grazing permits will be issued for livestock grazing or suspended use. New regulations allowing issuance of permits for conservation use were held unlawful. The Court further holds that a new regulation, which specifies that title to permanent range improvements made pursuant to cooperative agreements with the government shall be in the name of the United States, does not violate the Taylor Grazing Act. The new regulations change the title rules for range improvements made pursuant to a cooperative agreement, but not the rules for improvements made pursuant to permit. Because the Act gives the Secretary the power to authorize range improvements pursuant to a cooperative agreement—a greater power—he also has the power to set the terms of title ownership to such improvements—a lesser power. Further, there is nothing in the Act that denies the Secretary authority reasonably to decide when or whether to grant title to those who make improvements.

[Prior decisions in this litigation are published at 27 ELR 20040 and 29 ELR 20116.]

Counsel for Petitioner
Constance E. Brooks
C.E. Brooks & Associates
Denver Center
1776 Lincoln St., Ste. 1010, Denver CO 80203
(303) 863-0836

Counsel for Respondent
William B. Lazarus
Environment and Natural Resources Division
U.S. Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 514-2000

With O'Connor, J., concurring, joined by Thomas, J.