Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Environmentalists to lose land linked to preserve

An environmental group stands to lose land linked to its signature Idaho wildlife preserve because federal land managers contend they've been misled over how the site would be managed.

Western Watersheds Project oversees three BLM grazing allotments totaling about 7,000 acres, or 11 square miles, connected to its Greenfire Preserve near the East Fork of the Salmon River.

Valley Sun LLC, a company headed by Gordon Younger, a Seattle environmentalist and a financial supporter of Western Watersheds, has a permit for the allotments but doesn't graze cattle there.

BLM officials from Challis, located 280 miles north of Boise in the mountains, this month told Younger he "knowingly or willfully made false statements or representations" about his plans for the allotments. As a result, they were canceling his permit "in its entirety."

Western Watersheds Project has nine pending federal lawsuits targeting the BLM as part of its campaign to end public land grazing. Younger has become a lightning rod for his role in buying up land in the region and for going toe-to-toe with ranchers for control of traditional grazing ground.

"Valley Sun, LLC and Western Watersheds Project have provided BLM with baffling, contradictory and apparently false statements," BLM Field Manager David Rosenkrance told Younger in a Feb. 2 letter that the permit was being canceled. "I can only conclude Valley Sun, LLC never intended to purchase livestock to activate their permit."

Rosenkrance, who was out of the Challis office and didn't immediately return a call, gave Younger 15 days to protest.

In 2000, Younger bought a 432-acre ranch near Challis that became Western Watersheds Project's Greenfire Preserve.

The ranch came with permits to BLM and U.S. Forest Service grazing allotments totaling more than 50,000 acres, according to the group.

Jon Marvel, director of the Hailey-based Western Watersheds, has managed Younger's allotment near Challis under a conservation agreement for a decade. He plans to protest Rosenkrance's decision to cancel the permit, which Marvel says stems from the federal agency's support of ranching interests.

"There has been and continues to be a bias in the BLM against conservation," Marvel said, adding keeping the allotments remains a priority. "It's very important. Not having livestock on these landscapes is hugely beneficial for wildlife and fisheries."

Livestock interests accuse Younger, a Seattle packaging business owner, of forming "fake ranches" to buy land, compete for leases, squeeze livestock off prime grazing ground - and then manage it as wildlife habitat. Since 2006, Younger has been embroiled in a federal court lawsuit against Idaho that it settled late last year for $50,000, an agreement to end discrimination and a rewrite of rules governing how Idaho awards competitive grazing leases.

Ranching groups embittered by Younger's and Marvel's activities greeted the BLM's move to cancel the permit near Challis, saying federal action has been long overdue.

"He's just not playing with a level playing field," said Stan Boyd, executive director of the Idaho Woolgrower's Association. "Finally, the BLM got fed up. It's about time."

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