WRIGHT — The Thunder Basin National Grassland — a sweeping patchwork of green and copper brush accented by shocks of colorful wildflowers — is a diverse landscape, as rich in its biodiversity as it is in its management structure.
In all, the grassland contains approximately 547,499 acres of private and public land, and is home to everything from a massive coal mine to diverse species like burrowing owls and sage grouse to antelope and prairie dogs – species that are afforded a certain level of protection under federal law.
For years, ranchers and other interests in the region have found themselves grappling with those protections, many of which have led to difficulties in managing everything from prairie dog populations — which fluctuate rapidly — to water supplies, which can often be held up in processes and paperwork too slow and too onerous to meet their needs in a timely fashion.
It’s a concern significant enough to compel United States Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to make his second visit to Wyoming. On Wednesday, he joined Gov. Mark Gordon and Rep. Liz Cheney in a roundtable conversation with local stakeholders and a horseback tour of the grassland in search of reforms to how the grasslands are managed.
Over plates of hash browns and biscuits soaked in gravy, Perdue began his morning with a breakfast discussion with ranchers, conservationists and oilers, each of which offered their own concerns ranging from property rights to species management.
Ultimately, one theme emerged: the need for regulatory reform in a region with a unique and specialized set of needs.
“I looked at some of the underlying statutes Congress passed, and I believe we went far beyond what I believe the intent of Congress was in those laws, in order to insure ourselves against some type of litigation,” Perdue said in a roundtable with reporters following the breakfast. “I think that has led to some over stringent regulations from the Forest Service (an agency of the USDA that manages the Thunder Basin National Grassland) that was not the intent of Congress.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture handles more than just soil, soybeans and school lunches — covering everything from rural housing to risk management for farmers under its umbrella.
Though comprehensive, that scope of responsibility can have its pitfalls. This is particularly true for the Forest Service, which is responsible not just for the management of the country’s national forests, but its national grasslands as well, many of which abut privately-owned farms and ranches.
According to many of the ranchers in attendance Wednesday morning, years of overregulation from the federal government, paired with a lack of informed guidance from the Forest Service itself, has made ranch life beside the Thunder Basin National Grassland a challenge, with government regulations on everything from managing prairie dog populations to digging a well getting in the way of daily life.
One rancher in attendance even called for a separate agency to manage the nation’s grasslands, arguing the Forest Service is hamstrung by rules and regulations within the forest service that aren’t tailored for grassland management.
“The grasslands should not be under the purview of the forest service,” said Jean Harshbarger, a longtime rancher on the grassland who has long been a central figure in prairie dog population management efforts in the region over the years.
For the officials in attendance, a solution lies with a proposal pushed by President Donald Trump since the earliest days of his administration: a wholesale reduction of regulations.
People like Harshbarger have found themselves dealing with a regulatory environment too slow-moving for the cyclical needs of needing more water on their properties, for example, or the constantly fluctuating populations of prairie dog that rise and fall with the latest wave of disease.
Much of the problem, officials said Wednesday, lies mired in a tangle of rules and regulations that can often hinder ranchers and other interests in the Thunder Basin Grassland.
Many of the rules in the way, Perdue said, were written by agencies in ways that went “above and beyond” the intent of the lawmakers who authorized them, adding his belief that most were written with the intent of keeping the federal government safe from lawsuits.
Perdue doesn’t share that concern over possible legal action.
“I get sued every day,” Perdue said. “I’m not afraid of being sued, as long as we’re doing right.”
At the core of Wednesday’s discussion was carrying forward a commitment to treat state governments as equal partners in the regulatory writing process — a relationship long sought after in states like Wyoming, where significant portions of its land and resources are under the purview of the federal government.
“What President Trump has really brought is a real understanding of the cost of regulation,” Cheney said. “When the federal government imposes regulation after regulation, they build up over the years, and it has a devastating impact. Especially in places like ours, where so much of our resources are owned by the federal government. The impact of that is devastating to people.”
Dismantling that framework in a way that is practical and balanced, Gordon said, requires a realistic look at those concerns.
“The laws and the regulations have become sort of sacred cows,” Gordon said. “When you actually look at issues on the ground and see what’s happening, that’s when it becomes very clear that our policy discussions really revolve around protecting these hallmark laws – which have been interpreted and grown over time – rather than looking at what is actually happening, and making it work better.”