Thursday, August 21, 2008

Ranchers seek Smith's help in grazing battle
Cattlemen face ‘perfect storm’ over public lands

Cattle ranchers gathered in John Day Monday to press their case for proactive monitoring by the Forest Service in the face of what U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith termed a "perfect storm."

"Whether it's the peas or trees, or cows, times are good or times are bad," said Smith. "Right now there's sort of a perfect storm as it relates to cattle, and the cattle industry."

Contributing to that storm are rising hay and fuel prices, a sluggish market, and - the subject of the Aug. 18 meeting - environmentalists' litigation over grazing practices on public lands.

Smith's comments came at a meeting called by the Oregon Cattlemen's Association to discuss the difficulties facing the cattle ranching industry. About two dozen ranchers from Grant and Harney counties attended the session, held in a meeting room at Old West Federal Credit Union.

The session, moderated by Long Creek rancher Sharon Livingston, included a panel of area ranchers who talked about their concerns and experiences.

Smith said he hears the concerns of ranchers and also sees that the Forest Service is caught in the middle, facing lawsuits from environmental groups over grazing and also from ranchers defending themselves.

"I know you'd rather meet at the cattle yard than the courtrooms, and I would like that too," he said.

Smith said he shares both the concerns and the questions, the latter including a query about why other national forests are working with Oregon State University scientists on monitoring programs, but that has not been done on the Malheur. Monitoring the conditions and impacts of grazing in riparian and streamside areas is a focal point in recent lawsuits.

Bill Moore, OCA president, said this is a time "of great concern" for the cattle industry.

He told Smith that federal judges are creating laws, rather than interpreting them. And he asked for help in resolving that situation.

A panel of ranchers - Ron Burnett, Loren Stout, Jeff Hussey, and Pete McElligott - discussed their experiences and their long tenure on the land.

Burnette told Smith of his family's history of stewardship. He said his granddaughter - if she chooses to follow in the family's chosen lifestyle - could be the ninth generation to run cattle in John Day country.

But the challenges are many. He said that despite the investment he has made to improve his grazing allotment, he has been stymied by vague or changing rules and standards. This year he was one of several Malheur National Forest permittees locked out of some allotments for the grazing season.

Burnette said the permittees can't be sure they will meet standards if the Malheur National Forest staff doesn't keep good statistics and set reliable protocols. Handshake approvals and verbal OKs no longer assure permittees that that they are in compliance.

"Six months from now, someone can come in and want to see what took place - on a piece of paper," he said.

Ranchers said that proof is not being provided by the Malheur.

Stout urged the senator to help the Malheur get a monitoring system that's reliable in court, and that "throws out the personal agendas."

Concerns raised Monday were that forest staff haven't monitored the allotments consistently, and haven't used scientific standards that will hold up in court. That leaves judges to decide grazing challenges based on the proofs submitted by environmental groups, the ranchers contend.

The ranchers also said the attempts at monitoring don't take into account damage to the habitat by other animals, particularly the wild horses that roam parts of the MNF.

The threat to grazing goes beyond the livelihood of individual ranchers, the panelists said.

"I feel that our culture, our heritage, is at stake," said Hussey.

Ranchers cited the cost of litigation they bear, as well as the impact that lawsuits have on the Forest Service.

"If they're litigating, they can't work," Hussey said. "If I'm litigating, I can't work, either."

He and the others pushed for a monitoring protocol that would work.

MNF Supervisor Doug Gochnour, on the job just two months, told the group that he understands the struggle they face.

While he wasn't able to discuss ongoing litigation over MNF allotments, he said he believes the Forest Service will vigorously defend the legal challenges.

"The grazing program on the Malheur and in Eastern Oregon is important to me," he said.

He said the staff is working long hours on the current cases, and that there will be changes in the legal defense.

"I understand that the attorney from the U.S. Department of Justice didn't do a very good job," he said of the most recent case. "She's since resigned."

Gochnour also said the MNF monitoring has been challenged by staff turnover. The ranger coordinator, Chance Gowan, recently left his post due to health problems, and the forest is bringing in a new coordinator from California.

In additon, the MNF and all the other forests in the region are facing a financial hit to pay for some $24 million in firefighting costs. The MNF's share of that bill is about $1.6 million, said Gochnour.

Larry Larson, a professor in range ecology for Oregon State University, said the bottom line on the grazing issue is that the Forest Service has not been doing an adequate job of monitoring or permit administration.

Larson said he wasn't speaking for the university, the Forest Service or the permittees, but from his own research.

On the Malheur, good data is not available, he said, and that's what the courts are demanding.

Gochnour compared the situation to the challenges facing the timber industry 20 years ago, when the agency was continually defending itself in court.

Smith noted that it takes three branches of government to make change, but he urged the ranchers not to give up hope. He noted that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, criticized for embracing environmental positions, is starting to reverse its past trends toward rulings that went "beyond science."

He also said that if the rules for grazing change frequently, as claimed by the ranchers, "you're not getting due process of law."

He said it sounds as if the agency is working to cope with the threat of litigation, rather than working proactively to protect the environment and keep ranchers in business.

Smith said he has contacted Sen. Ron Wyden to arrange for a joint hearing on resource issues including grazing. Wyden chairs the Senate's Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests.

He said it takes all branches of the government to bring about change, but Congressional hearings "can also bring heat and light to these issues."

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