Thursday, November 13, 2008

Dorgan says Forest Service to scrub grassbank plan

Sen. Byron Dorgan says the chief of the U.S. Forest Service has assured him the agency will scrub plans to manage a scenic badlands ranch in western North Dakota as a forage reserve without traditional grazing.

Dorgan said Wednesday that he spoke with Forest Service Chief Abigail Kimbell, who told him that grazing rights on the Billings County land would continue.

The Forest Service proposed last month that the 5,200-acre ranch and 18,000 acres of nearby federal grasslands be managed as a "grassbank" for area ranchers to use during times of drought, grass fires or when their own ranch lands need a rest.

The Forest Service's Dakota Prairie Grasslands supervisor, Dave Pieper, said Wednesday that the agency will continue to take public comment on its grassbank plan until Nov. 24. He said he had not been ordered by agency bosses to halt the plan.

"We're going to follow the law," Pieper said. "We are moving forward with the public process. It's just a proposal at this stage."

Wayde Schafer, a North Dakota spokesman for the Sierra Club, said that under Dorgan's plan, the management of the badlands ranch would deviate from how other public-owned grasslands are managed in the U.S.

"It's unprecedented that the public will not be a part of the management decision in this one area, and that ranchers themselves will decide how much grazing there will be and when," Schafer said.

Rancher Jim Arthaud, a county commissioner and member of the Medora Grazing Association, said it was clear in the negotiations over the purchase of the ranch that the grazing rights involved would be divided among area ranchers.

The Forest Service purchased the ranch, next to Theodore Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch site, from brothers Kenneth, Allan and Dennis Eberts and their families last year. It cost $5.3 million, with $4.8 million coming from the federal government and $500,000 from conservation groups.

As part of the deal, the Forest Service promised to sell an equal number of acres in North Dakota to balance the acquisition of the former Blacktail Creek Ranch, and to continue grazing and other activities, including oil and gas development.

Dorgan said the purchase agreement allows the grazing association to allocate leases as it has traditionally done and he said using the land as a grassbank would violate that agreement. He has accused Pieper of acting as a "one-man band."

"We've got some folks in the Forest Service who want to try and skirt the law," Dorgan said. "They did not follow the agreement we made."

Pieper called it a complex situation. Dorgan found it fairly straightforward.

"It's not complicated at all — the law is the law, and federal agencies are not above the law," Dorgan said. "I do expect the Forest Service to follow the law, and if they don't, there will be consequences."

Schafer said the Forest Service manages millions of acres of grasslands in the U.S., including 1.2 million acres in North Dakota.

"Of all the grasslands in the U.S., none would be set up the way Sen. Dorgan wants this to be managed," Schafer said.

The Sierra Club strongly supports the idea of a grassbank, which Schafer called "an insurance policy" for ranchers.

"It would benefit all ranchers in need, rather than just two or three who would be able to increase their cattle herds," Schafer said.

Arthaud said locals always have been critical of the federal government's purchase of the ranch, fearing the valuable grasslands would be off limits to ranchers. He said about half a dozen area ranchers would benefit by allocating leases in the traditional way, and he hopes the Forest Service will back off its grassbank proposal now that Dorgan has intervened.

"The deal was made, they agreed to it, and then they lied to us," Arthaud said of the Forest Service. "The issue here is that they want to take 23,000 acres out of production."

Those acres are enough to support about 500 cows, he said.

"The Forest Service doesn't know how to manage cows and the Sierra Club doesn't like cows, period," Arthaud said.

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