Montana's Congressman, Denny Rehberg, today sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar urging them to open all available public land, as well as land currently enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), for emergency grazing. Many of Montana's fires are impacting ranch and farmlands used for grazing.
"Over the weekend, I had the chance to see first-hand how these fires are destroying grazing lands across the state," said Denny Rehberg, a rancher from Billings. "We're talking about Montana's top industry literally going up in smoke unless some emergency action is taken, and fast. Folks on the ground are worried about their houses and barns, and rightfully so. That's got to be our top priority. But they're worried about their animals, too, and if there's any way to alleviate some of that concern, it's worth doing. I hope the federal government will respond quickly."
The Departments of Agriculture and Interior, through the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, own grazing land that does not currently have livestock on it. In addition, USDA Farm Service Agency's (FSA) Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is a voluntary program available to agricultural producers to help them safeguard environmentally sensitive land. Haying and grazing of CRP acreage is authorized under certain conditions -- including to provide emergency relief to livestock producers due to natural disasters like flooding and drought. Under this authority, acreage in designated counties will be authorized for haying and grazing for a time specified by FSA. Producers who choose to hay or graze on their CRP land during an emergency designation sacrifice part of their CRP payment, but can earn profits from haying or grazing.
"Denny's a rancher, so he gets it, and we're lucky to have someone like him on the job," said Jake Cummins, Executive Vice President of the Montana Farm Bureau. "These fires are scary enough while they're burning, but the long-term impact on the economy could be just as bad. If we've got land available for grazing, it makes sense to use it. What we can't do is wait months for the federal bureaucracy to get around to opening the gate. We need access now while the grass is there, not six months from now when everything is brown or there is snow on the ground."
Rehberg's letter is below:
Dear Secretary Vilsack and Secretary Salazar:
I am writing to request that the Departments of Agriculture and Interior consider opening all available land to emergency grazing given the drought and fires across Montana, including land controlled by the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and land currently enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
Montana's fires have already burned over 250,000 acres this year, and the hardship put on local communities is only increasing. Livestock are being continually displaced and rising temperatures put an additional burden on feed and water reserves. Having witnessed the situation firsthand with our brave men and women fighting the fires and providing emergency relief, I know that we must act soon to ensure that help is available to those in need. Recognizing the need for swift action, Governor Schweitzer has issued an emergency declaration for affected counties and Indian reservations, and I urge you to facilitate the disaster response by giving flexibility to affected livestock owners.
Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to working with you to assist the disaster response in any way possible. Please don't hesitate to contact my office if you have further questions.