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Back to the Present: The Supreme Court Refuses to Move Public Range Law Backward, but Will the BLM Move Public Range Management Forward?

January 2001

Citation: 31 ELR 10021

Issue: 1

Author: Joseph M. Feller

"In the ranchers' view, history has created expectations in respect to the security of 'grazing privileges'; they have relied upon those expectations; and the statute requires the Secretary to 'safeguard' that reliance."2

"Their adamance derives from a recollection of history that never existed and from asserted promises that were never made."3

For the last quarter century there has been a persistent dichotomy between law and practice in the administration of livestock grazing on the western public lands. At least since the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA)4 in 1976 (and arguably before then),5 the law has regarded the federal public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as a public resource to be managed in the manner that "best meets the present and future needs of the American people."6 Under this statutory mandate, livestock production is just one of many potential uses of the public lands, and the Secretary of the Interior, acting through the BLM,7 has substantial discretion to decide whether, how much, and under what conditions grazing will be permitted to occur in any particular area.8 The BLM has broad authority to reduce, restrict, or eliminate grazing in order to protect or enhance other public land resources and uses, including wildlife, water quality, and recreation.9 In practice, however, personnel of the BLM have tended to treat the privilege of grazing livestock on the public lands as an entitlement that may be abridged without the consent of the permittee only under certain narrowly defined conditions.10 This deference to livestock interests by the BLM has encouraged and perpetuated expectations by ranchers that have often been mistaken for legal rights.

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