Thursday, August 28, 2008

Grazing lawsuits spawn talks
Costly litigation has cattlemen searching for new answers

Ranchers and environmental activists have taken steps toward a dialogue over grazing on public lands, although the path has been rocky so far.

Concerned about ongoing lawsuits challenging grazing, a few ranchers from Grant and Harney counties approached the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) earlier this summer to see if they could resolve the organization's concerns.

The outreach came after similar talks brought a compromise in the deadlock between timber and environmental interests over wildfire salvage sales on Forest Service land in Grant and Harney counties.

Ken Brooks, a Fox Valley rancher, said Grant County Judge Mark Webb and the ranchers were seeking ways to prevent ongoing lawsuits from undermining the cattle industry in the region.

"We can't afford to just keep litigating, so we thought we could try to find some common ground," Brooks said.

The ranchers met with ONDA representatives in June. They came away from the meeting with the sense that ONDA wasn't pushing to eliminate all grazing, but did want to "retire" some land considered to be critical habitat for steelhead-salmon runs.

The grazing permittees expected that as a next step, ONDA would review areas that it would propose for retiring, set priorities and identify the grazing allotments that would be affected.

In July, the permittees received a draft proposal from ONDA that they say went beyond that. Harney County rancher Jeff Hussey, a participant in the talks, said the proposal was "more extreme than what ONDA has requested in the court cases."

The ONDA proposal called for eliminating grazing on 33 percent of the Malheur National Forest land now being grazed, restrict grazing on another 33 percent, and require implementation of conservation plans for the other 33 percent.

"The economic impact of this proposal could be severe," said Brooks. "Agriculture is the only viable industry left in Grant County and most of Eastern Oregon. Our area is already economically depressed. We can't sustain any more economic loss."

Webb also was concerned after viewing the ONDA draft. In a news release, he said the County Court would not support a proposal that eliminates most of the grazing on federal lands in the county, "especially one that lacks scientific credibility."

The proposal also calls for the Forest Service to permanently close an allotment or area where a grazing permit has been relinquished, and to follow specific National Marine Fisheries Service "mitigation terms" - measures that define stubble height and other factors.

The ranching community has protested the use of some of those standards, contended that they are a "one height suits all" approach that doesn't account for differences in plant species and specific habitat and terrain.

In a response to ONDA last week, the ranchers said the proposal seems both unfair to the permittees and unrealistic. They questioned the rationale for the reallocation percentages, closure of grazing permits, and other aspects of the proposal.

However, they didn't close the door on further talks. The response said the county and the permittees would continue to work with ONDA, but only if the litigation over grazing ends. They also want the discussion to deals with other factors - such as wild horses, fishing, and poor forest health - that have an impact on fish recovery.

The ranchers remain critical of monitoring by the Malheur National Forest, contending that it has been inconsistent and that makes it difficult to defend their grazing practices.

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