According to a factsheet published by the Public Lands Council, more than 22,000 public-lands ranchers manage more than 250 million acres of public land across the U.S. – the majority of said ranchers who reside in the Western portion of the lower 48.

Most producers would probably agree that having part of their livelihood dependent upon federally made decisions creates challenges. Unfortunately, other available options are usually difficult to find – and even harder to seize when found.

Regardless of whether producers work with the BLM or the USFS or not, they should stay on their toes. Staying ahead is always best because once one falls behind, it is almost impossible to catch back up.

This “step ahead” comes most easily through paperwork. While the office side of the cattle business may be a rancher’s least favorite, it can also be his golden ticket.

Documentation is key

As a land manager for one of Idaho’s largest ranches, and the state’s representative to the Public Lands Council board of directors, Darcy Helmick knows a thing or two about what it takes to successfully navigate both BLM and USFS federal grazing permits.


“Keep everything,” she jokes.

But in some ways, she isn’t joking. The more records you keep, the better off you’ll be if you do find your permit dancing into the unknown.

“Although your agency office should keep a copy of everything, there’s no guarantee that they have,” reminds Helmick.

“Range and forest managers seem to have a high turnover, so there’s no way of knowing what the person before them kept in terms of records. An office only keeps things for so long before they box them up and send them to an archive area, so it’s pretty imperative that you’re in the driver’s seat, keeping your own material.”

Helmick’s detailed filing process is what she credits for keeping her a step ahead. She has an expandable file folder for each permit.

The expandable nature of the folder is what is most helpful, allowing her to have a special, organized section for each article that needs safekeeping.

In one section she keeps all permits, past and present, along with all legal documentation that accompanies the permit. These documents are what agencies will ask for at the time of a producer’s permit renewal, so keep them easily accessible.

“When you become a permit holder, you’re taking on the responsibility of being a steward of the land in all aspects,” Helmick notes.

“If your permit is being renewed under a rider, until the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) is completed, your proposed permit must be exactly the same as your previous permit. Although this is technically the agency’s job, it is up to you to make sure this doesn’t go overlooked.”

In the next file section, Helmick keeps any bills or applications associated with the permit, followed by any and all correspondence between the agency and her.

It is important to safeguard any documentation or conversations regarding conditions of the allotment, any requests for management changes, discussions about range improvements and any requests for involvement in any on-the-ground trips that occur in your allotment.

Last, Helmick keeps a file of her actual use. She notes that recently some areas have tried to make management changes based on actual use numbers, not permitted numbers.

The claim for this is that any “damage” done to the allotment was made by the actual number of cattle turned out, not the permitted number, so in turn, any permit cuts should be based on the lower number.

However, Helmick is quick to note that although this argument can be damaging to a producer’s permit, it can easily be used in the opposite manner.

“Some of our allotments have far more forage than what is allocated,” she said. “I can show on my actual use that I have used every AUM (animal unit monthly) and couple that with my range monitoring data to prove that I need to be granted more AUMs in that allotment.”

Also important to remember when purchasing a permit from another producer is to obtain any records they may have on that area at the time of sale. He or she may not have kept everything, but having a few pieces from the past is better than nothing.

“Since you may not be purchasing a permit you’re too familiar with, any type of record is helpful,” Helmick adds.

Range monitoring

While not an obligation, range monitoring provides permit holders their best form of insurance. During the permit renewal process, agencies base their decisions off the data available to them, which oftentimes is minimal.

Permit holders providing documentation on their allotment conditions fill in the information holes with critical data. For range monitoring material to be of use, it needs to have all possible records to accompany it.

This includes but is not limited to dates, times and global positioning system (GPS) coordinates. Storing this information in its own folder is suggested, as you will quickly amass a good deal of information if your allotments are monitored pre-turnout, mid-turnout and post-turnout.

John Biar, range program specialist for the Idaho State Department of Agriculture (ISDA), has seen the benefits of range monitoring first-hand and sees it as something every rancher should implement.

“Grazing permit renewal decisions are based off of the best available data the agency has,” he notes. “Many times, this amount of data may be minimal, or the data may have ‘holes’ and is lacking several years of information. While federal agency staff has good intentions on gathering this data, litigation and budget cuts have often limited the staff to where a new approach is necessary to gather this type of critical monitoring data.”

To Biar’s delight, rangeland photo monitoring seems to be catching on in Idaho. Last year, ISDA assisted ranchers with photo monitoring in their allotments on 27 existing monitoring sites representing approximately 125,000 acres.

Ken Crane, BLM supervisory rangelend managementFor 2015, ISDA already has 195 photo sites scheduled representing more than 300,000 acres. For more information in developing a monitoring program for your BLM allotment, Biar recommends contacting your state’s agriculture department.

“I strongly encourage ranchers and their range consultants to go to the field with agency staff when the agency itself is conducting any monitoring or rangeland health assessments in a rancher’s allotment,” recommends Biar.

“Ranchers should be involved throughout the entire process because the data those agencies are taking is what will serve as the foundation, leading up to the ranchers’ grazing permit renewal decision.”

Fostering relationships

Another important aspect of working with federal agencies, or anyone for that matter, is attempting to foster a strong relationship.

While a well-built relationship with agency personnel may not solve all of a producer’s problems, having an open line of communication will help to ensure a permit holder is aware of any and all happenings.

“Fostering a good working relationship with your federal agency can, at times, be challenging to some ranchers, but it’s a task that cannot be dismissed,” advises Biar.

Helmick is quick to agree with Biar, mentioning, “Being known as a permit holder who uses sugar rather than vinegar in his or her dealings is something that will generally be passed down to your new agency representative and will be helpful in building a new relationship.”

At the end of the day, producers who utilize public lands should not fear what will come. Just like in any business dealing, the better prepared one is, the smoother the ride – and federal grazing permits are no different.

In the present, recordkeeping may seem like a daunting task, but when a producer’s grazing permit hangs in the balance, his or her time spent archiving and organizing will be their greatest asset.  end mark

Jessie Thompson Jarvis is a freelance writer from King Hill, Idaho.

Ken Crane, a BLM supervisory rangeland management specialist, educates producers during a range tour led by the Idaho Rangeland Resource Commission (IRRC).

It is recommended that producers work to establish a good relationship with their range or forest representative and ask to accompany them during any on-the-ground tours the agency may be conducting. Producers can learn more about the BLM permitting process by visiting IRRC’s Life on the Range. Photo courtsey of Idaho Rangeland Resource Commission.