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Indian ranchers, farmers tap disaster aid

LAS VEGAS - American Indian farmers and ranchers, threatened by recent drought and fire throughout the West, have tapped into several federal emergency programs for millions of dollars of relief, and will be able to do so again next year.

That's because the American Indian Livestock Feed Program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture received an appropriation of $12 million for the 2001 fiscal year, those attending the annual symposium of the Intertribal Agricultural Council here were told.

Bruce Nelson, Montana state director of the Farm Service Agency (a unit of USDA) said that Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman funded the feed program in 1997 with proceeds from a sale of $12.5 million worth of surplus barley, but that sum is just about gone.

Fifteen tribes in six states received $11,384,000 so far, Nelson said, but USDA decided against replenishing the fund. However, he said Sen. Max Baucus of Montana got a $12 million appropriation put into the FY 2001 budget for the program.

AILFP provides cash payouts of up to 30 percent of the loss to livestock producers on reservations for losses due to drought or disaster. The program is administered by tribes and FSA, and producers must demonstrate they suffered a loss of at least 35 percent of their feed.

Losses are established by feed receipts or an FSA calculation.

Only those who actually own the livestock are eligible, not absentee landowners. Eligible livestock includes beef, dairy cattle, commercial buffalo and beefalo, horses (but not race or rodeo stock), sheep, swine and goats.

Benefits are payable on top of other relief programs, Nelson said, and if a producer already owes FSA money, the agency won't take any of the payout to square the debt.

"The program works fairly well," Nelson said, but since all producers on the reservation are eligible, not only Indians, this can produce friction. He suggested tribes create an additional eligibility restriction to trust land only.

Nelson said tribal producers have also benefited from the Emergency Conservation Program, and that Congress has authorized $80 million for it in FY 2001.

This is a cost-share program to repair land or production facilities damaged by disasters. Currently, the government pays 50 percent of the tab on a permanent repair and 64 percent on a temporary one - ratios Nelson thinks should be reversed.

The money can be used to remove debris from farmland, to grade, shape or re-level land, to restore permanent fences, to restore structures, to facilitate wind control, or to drill wells or pipelines during drought.

From a tribal perspective, the program is flawed because designations are done on a county, rather than reservation, basis, Nelson said. He also thinks there should be a higher cost-share ratio for low-income areas, which many reservations are.

Mike Somerville, the state conservationist of Arizona, told the IAC meeting (the group is based in Billings, Mont.) that in his drought-ridden state, 102 ranchers on nine of the state's 22 reservations, affecting 1.2 million acres of Indian land, have taken part in the Emergency Watershed Protection Program run by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The EWP pays for up to 75 percent of costs on damage done by floods, hurricanes, fire, earthquake or drought. Projects must have a local sponsor, such as a tribe or a county. The first time the EWP was used for drought relief was 1999.

Results of the program? Decreased runoff and reduced soil erosion, as cattle were removed from affected areas to try to restore or maintain vegetative cover, Somerville said.

At the Hualapai tribe near the Grand Canyon, cattle were removed from 150,000 acres for six months, and an additional 450,000 acres saw reduced grazing. As a result, Somerville said, the Hualapai have begun to re-evaluate grazing practices.

Sixty-five ranchers participated in the program on the Navajo reservation, he said.