The Interior Department wants to make it easier to exempt from environmental reviews any activities that it sees as having insignificant effect on public lands, the agency's top lawyer says.
The Bush administration also is determined to halt the use of the Endangered Species Act as a "zoning tool" on federal lands, William Myers, the department's solicitor general, said in a speech last week.
"It has gotten to the point where you can hardly dig a post hole without having to do an environmental analysis," Myers told about 100 members of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association, who welcomed his criticism of what they regard as onerous conservation measures.
The cattlemen are among those critical of grazing reforms adopted under the Clinton administration that they claim are aimed at driving sheep and cattle off public lands in the West.
"It's been a long time since we had a friend in the solicitor's office," said John Falen, a rancher and the group's past president.
Myers directs 300 lawyers at the agency that oversees the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs. He is a former Idaho lawyer and once served as a lobbyist for ranchers who use public lands.
He said the Interior Department hopes to complete a set of proposals by year's end that would reverse some of the changes in livestock-grazing regulations adopted under past Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.
"Secretary Babbitt put out a whole slew of regulations in 1994 that dramatically changed the way ranchers use the public land," he said.
The administration is examining the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in search of opportunities to "more routinely" exclude minor activities from normal reviews "and basically permit insignificant actions so they do not have to go through full-blown NEPA review," he said.
"If you look at the NEPA statute, it requires an analysis of 'significant' effects on the environment," Myers said. "But that good law over many years has come to mean we will look at 'any' effects on the environment."
Myers said he notified all managers in the Fish and Wildlife Service of a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling backing the Arizona Cattle Growers Association last year.
The ranchers won a suit challenging the agency's requirement that they follow Endangered Species Act regulations even on federal grazing allotments "where there was no evidence of the species being there at all," he said.
The ruling rolled back some of the requirements aimed at protecting the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl and fish, such as the razorback sucker, the Sonora chub and the Gila topminnow.
"We should not be using the Endangered Species Act . . . as a land management tool," Myers said.
Myers said he's monitoring attempts by environmentalists to use the Clean Water Act to halt grazing on public lands based on claims the cattle are polluting waterways.
Last month, three groups sued in federal court targeting alleged excessive grazing on 500,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management range in northern Nevada.
The suit cites the BLM's own environmental analyses as concluding livestock grazing there is contributing to poor water quality, resulting in numerous significant violations of Nevada water quality standards.
"As long as the BLM and other federal land management agencies continue to bow to the livestock industry, we'll never meet the promise of the Clean Water Act of restoring all streams, rivers and wetlands," said Katie Fite, spokeswoman for the Committee for the High Desert, one of the plaintiffs.