As I learned from my father growing up on a farm in middle Georgia, “If you take care of the land, the land will take care of you.” This was true when I was a young boy helping my father on our farm, and it is still true today, whether I’m working to improve USDA programs for our farmers or teaching my children and grandchildren how to respect the land.
This sentiment rings as true with farmers, ranchers, and producers as it does with avid sportsmen and women who utilize our beautiful forests, wetlands and rolling hills for hiking, hunting and fishing. There is nothing more conservative than conserving America’s unique landscape so future generations can enjoy and use them just as we do today. But conserving for the future doesn’t mean our government regulations have to stay stuck in the past with a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, we need to make common sense reforms that take into account our country’s varying lands and changing topography – from Georgia all the way to Wyoming.
Last week, USDA did just that – following through on President Donald Trump’s commitment to remove burdensome and costly regulations from the backs of all Americans. We are proposing changes to the conservation plans for the greater sage grouse in five western states: Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming and Utah. USDA heard loud and clear from stakeholders that the plans to conserve the sage grouse habitat implemented in 2015 were out-of-step with states’ efforts, causing duplicative standards for land users and defeating the real purpose.
To address these concerns, our proposed changes originated from the best source – straight from the states and land users themselves. The Forest Service is making its sage grouse plans more fact-based, efficient and better aligned with the needs of states and local governments by incorporating sound science and input from people on the ground. Our efforts are a prime example of how the federal government works best when it’s listening to those we serve. The USDA Forest Service conferred with our Western states and engaged stakeholders to find out what actually works. Local and state governments came up with great solutions to support and conserve the sage grouse habitat, while streamlining federal regulations with existing state standards.
This collaboration was paramount to achieving our objective to allow for greater flexibility and local control of conservation and management. We are proposing to adopt a site-specific view so ranchers, permittees and industry can adapt to their local conditions rather than be forced to conform to a one-size-fits-all, national approach. We are revising grazing guidelines to shift from rigid and prescribed standards to locally-driven strategies. And we embrace a common vision – achieving wildlife conservation through sustainable ranching.
The federal government does not hold all of the wisdom, which is why USDA is committed to shared stewardship and ensuring the decision makers are closer to the people – not in Washington, D.C. It’s vital to empower state and local land managers to work together to identify conservation techniques that are consistent and flexible enough to recognize the differences between states and ecosystems across sage grouse’s habitat. The Forest Service worked together with many local, state and federal agencies in an unprecedented conservation effort that has helped save the sage grouse from making its way to the Endangered Species list. Together we are taking proactive measures to conserve America’s wilderness, promote local management of public lands and make the sage grouse a thriving species in America’s western states.
Cooperating across state lines goes farther than the original goal of conserving the sage grouse habitat. This type of partnership will protect communities, promote resilient landscapes and reduce the threat of wildfire and the spread of invasive weeds that harm lives, property and natural resources.
During my time as Secretary of Agriculture, I want to see our National Forests, grasslands and wilderness thriving and healthier than what I saw before I came into office. My father’s words still ring true: we’re all stewards of the land, owned or rented, and our responsibility is to leave it better than we found it.