Thursday, June 28, 2012

Ranchers who say they helped restore lands now want better access for their cattle herds

Capital Press

WHITEHORSE RANCH, Ore. -- Arid vistas of sagebrush and grasses. Green fields in valleys.

The high desert country of southeastern Oregon has healed. Where thousands of cattle once worked their way across the landscape, only a fraction of that graze today, allowing the plants, streams and fish to recover.

Willows now flourish along stream banks, water quality and riparian conditions have improved, and rare lahontan cutthroat trout in creeks now number 24,000 compared with 10,000 in 1989, said Garth Ross, a wildlife biologist for the Bureau of Land Management in Malheur County, stationed in Vale, Ore.

A 20-year-old agreement reached by seven ranchers, state and federal agencies and environmental groups has restored fish, wildlife and habitat while preserving grazing rights for cattle.

Ranchers, who say they are grateful they're even still here, add that they've kept up their end of the bargain by drastically reducing grazing to allow the land to recuperate. Now they wonder whether they'll be able to regain at least some rights to more grazing in return.

Richard Yturriondobeitia, owner of 12-Mile Ranch, is an original member of the Trout Creek Mountain Working Group, which negotiated the agreement.

"Our management practices are better and we had our eyes opened to things we were doing wrong, but there is no progress," he said. "The agreement didn't turn out to be exactly what we thought it would be. We didn't make the BLM establish certain goals so we weren't able to get grazing we thought we would."

The region's sprawling ranches, incorporating both private and public land, are shadows of their former selves in numbers of cattle and cowboys. They are not alone.

Other cattle ranchers throughout the West want more grazing but feel outnumbered by environmentalists, who challenge grazing on publicly owned land because it can threaten species that are or may be listed as endangered or threatened under federal law.

How it started

The threat of environmental lawsuits aiming to stop decades of overgrazing and degradation of streams and fish brought Doc and Connie Hatfield, ranchers from Brothers, Ore., to spearhead the working group in the late 1980s. The Hatfields, best known as founders of the Country Natural Beef cooperative, had been involved in an agreement in the Prineville, Ore., BLM district. BLM officials invited them to speak with Trout Creek Mountain ranchers.

Their intent, according to their own booklet on the history of the working group, was to save both the environment and the region's ranches.

Since the 1960s, ranchers had tried fencing and keeping cattle away from creeks in the heat of summer but degradation continued, the Hatfields wrote in their "History of the Trout Creek Mountain Working Group."

The group formed in 1988. The seven ranches and representatives of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, BLM, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Oregon Environmental Council, Oregon Trout and the Izaak Walton League reached the final accord in 1992.

High-mountain grazing that occurred all summer was reduced to mid-May to mid-July to give grass time to regrow before fall and prevent grazing of willow and vegetation along streams. The shortened high-country grazing is allowed for two years in a given area and followed by two years of no grazing rest.

The ranches voluntarily stopped high-country grazing for three years before the agreement was completed.

Fewer cattle

Prior to the agreement, the area had close to 30,000 AUMs (animal unit months). An AUM is one month's grazing for one cow and one calf. Now grazing is reduced 6,640 AUMs, the BLM's Ross said. The total number of cattle is probably down 75 to 80 percent, he said.

Of the ranches affected by the agreement the Whitehorse Ranch was hit the hardest, ranchers said. It went from 3,000 to 3,500 head of cattle down to 800, said David Herman, who bought the ranch in 2006.

But that doesn't necessarily mean less profitability, he said.

"It's hard to know. Profit isn't always more volume," he said. "It's keeping costs in line."

With high beef prices the ranches are doing relatively well and may for some time since the supply of beef likely will lag behind demand for the foreseeable future, Herman said. On the flip side are rising costs, including fuel.

Comparing profit now to 20 or 30 years ago is hard to do, said Yturriondobeitia, owner of 12-Mile Ranch, the closest ranch east of the Whitehorse. But the ranches have been impacted financially by cattle weighing less and poorer conception and weaning rates because of less summertime high-country grazing, he said.

The mid-May to mid-July high-country grazing is too early and doesn't fit the grass, he said. Grazing an area for two years then having two years of rest isn't needed; proper timing of grazing is, he said.

The ranchers thought they were making progress toward some changes in the last five years but a new BLM manager went "back to doing things by the book," Yturriondobeitia said. The BLM moves employees around so relations seldom get beyond getting to know them, he said.

Yturriondobeitia is of Basque descent and is 67 years old. His wife, Jeanette, is 66. They hope their son, Dan, 43, and daughter, Jaime, 40, will keep the ranch going.

"But if we can't have consistency and goals, why would the next generation even want to do it?" he asked.

What others say

Grazing of willow along streams is now down to 2 percent while 20 percent is allowed by the agreement, Herman said.

Fish, wildlife and habitat are better off but "where's the advocate, where's PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) for the cows?" he asked.

Cattle are stressed because they are moved too early when they are lactating or just calved or on a certain calendar date when it may be too hot, Herman said.

He's trying to do his part, he said, in breeding cattle better suited for the desert that are 30 percent Angus, 20 percent Hereford, 20 percent Braford, 20 percent Beefmaster and 10 percent Chianina.

Gary and Marjorie Defenbaugh and their son, Ross, own the nearest ranch west of the Whitehorse. They also are original working group members but their land is in a different BLM district, where high-country grazing is allowed into mid-September.

The Defenbaughs are concerned about the Oregon Natural Desert Association, an environmental group, pushing to declare their BLM range land wilderness, ending all cattle grazing.

The BLM is scared of environmental groups but could do more seeding and brush control to manage lands for grazing, Marjorie Defenbaugh said.

Land near their house appeared overgrazed. There is overgrazing in spots on their private land because it's a dry year of lighter grass production, Marjorie said.

Steve and Amorita Maher own a ranch south of 12-Mile Ranch and east of Oregon Canyon Mountains. They are also original members of the working group, as were her parents. His father was cow boss of Whitehorse Ranch in the 1950s.

"To my knowledge no one ever signed anything. The BLM just gave us an ultimatum so we had to work things out with the environmentalists. Otherwise, we wouldn't be running cattle," Steve Maher said.

The first few years they didn't reduce their herd enough and overused the lowlands, Maher said.

Mid-May is too early to graze the high country because grass hasn't grown enough, he said. Mid-June to mid-August was allowed for awhile and worked well, he said.

He is working to get a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion changed to allow mid-June to mid-August high grazing and two years of grazing followed by one year of rest instead of the current two on and two off. Better high-country grazing is needed because most of the ranches don't have the lowland winter range that the Whitehorse has, he said.

Riparian areas are in excellent condition and BLM range conservationists work well with the ranches, Maher said.

"We've never had a lawsuit against us and we feel that's a positive thing," he said.

Part of a larger picture

While cattle ranchers in other parts of the West have ended up embroiled in lawsuits with environmentalists, the Trout Creek Mountain Working Group Agreement has been used by judges to toss out environmental challenges because of the environmental groups that signed on.

That's why the grazing rights of the agreement, Maher said, have been called the most secure grazing rights in the West.

Ken Bentz, a rancher near Crane, is the grandson of Paul Stewart, who owned Whitehorse Ranch from 1945 to 1961.

"Everyone always talks about compromise, but it was a little bit (of grazing rights) or nothing. There was no compromise," Bentz said of the agreement.

Ranchers throughout the West who depend on BLM grazing rights feel outnumbered and jeopardized by environmentalists pushing the BLM, he said.

"People think we have no right to be here even though we do. The person with the cow owns the grass and the government owns the land," Bentz said. "We were here long before the government showed up and said they own the land in the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934."

The act allowed the government to regulate grazing on federal land.

Rep. Greg Walden, who represents Eastern Oregon in the U.S. House of Representatives, co-sponsored a bill, HR4234, authorizing the BLM and U.S. Forest Service to award grazing permits for 20 years instead of 10. The idea is to give ranchers more certainty to invest in their ranches. The bill passed the House June 19 and went to the Senate.

It's really in the public's best interest, Herman said, to maintain cattle grazing.

"The public spends money to fight fires. The public wants beef to eat," Herman said. "People think the rancher is getting a sweet deal on grazing, but we pay for those permits. Everyone agrees grazing renews the grass. Without it, the grass stands dead and is fuel for fires."

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Labrador's forest management plan would give Idaho control of some national forests

Labrador’s bill would give states control over large chunks of federal forests to raise money to pay for local roads and schools.
Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador is looking past the November election with a bill that would give states opportunities to show they do a better job managing national forest lands.
Labrador knows his bill, which would establish pilot projects to turn over about 1 percent of Idaho’s 20 million acres of national forests to the state to manage, is not going to fly now. Not with a Democratic Senate — which has blocked similar plans in the past — and with a Democrat in the White House.
But Labrador is laying the groundwork with the Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act for a time when the GOP controls the Senate.
Campaigning in Idaho in February, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney expressed support for state management of federal lands. Romney’s proposal, which he said came after talking to Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, was offered as an alternative to Rick Santorum’s call to transfer ownership.
“It just gives every state the opportunity to manage their lands with local control, which is what we want,” Labrador said.
The plan has been a nonstarter for environmental groups, even those working in collaboration with Idaho counties and the timber industry. The groups want to keep federal lands managed by federal agencies.
States “would have a different mandate than managing our forests for the benefit of the American people,” said Brad Brooks, Wilderness Society deputy regional director.
Labrador’s proposal comes out of a proposal by five rural Idaho counties struggling with some of the highest unemployment in the state. They are desperate because they stand to lose $31 million in federal assistance that has helped keep them afloat following the decline of their timber economies.
That money has come from the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act — better known as Craig-Wyden, after the two Northwest senators who championed it. The act replaces revenues from drastically dwindled timber sale receipts that once buoyed counties and school districts with large tracts of federal timberlands and little private land to generate property taxes.
Deep federal budget cuts threaten the future of the Secure Rural Schools funds. The counties believe Labrador’s bill offers them a way to offset at least part of that lost funding. They hope it also would provide jobs and help to rebuild the timber industry and rural economies.
“I am excited to try something besides standing around with our hand out for a federal check,” said Skip Brandt, an Idaho County commissioner who also worked on the proposal.
The bill applies not just to Idaho. Any state could set up a forest trust board to manage 200,000 acres or more of national forests. Federal environmental laws would still be in effect, but only as if the lands were state lands.
That would reduce the requirements for states to consult on projects under the Endangered Species Act and to assess them under the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Planning and Management Act. State forestry departments, such as the Idaho Department of Lands, would manage the lands to maximize the long-term return for the counties after covering their costs.
One key savings to states: The Forest Service would still be responsible for fire protection — the biggest expense.
How much the pilot plan would return to the counties is part of the debate. The Idaho counties have predicted about $13 million annually, based on how much net income the state lands produce.
Since the counties came to the Idaho Land Board, the state has analyzed the 1 million acres adjacent to state lands from which the pilot lands might be chosen. Predicting with any precision the net income would be hard until specific forests and conditions are revealed, said David Groeschl, Idaho’s state forester.
He’d also need to know how many people he will have to hire to do the actual management. Timber markets have been soft since 2008, he said. His estimate ranges from $7 million to $12 million, depending on the market.
Labrador sees more than just timber receipts benefiting the communities. He predicted jobs in timber mills, logging and other services.
But Chris Mehl of Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Mont., said productivity gains in modern mills have reduced industry jobs.
Headwaters’ analysis suggests far less would be generated, especially with the current depressed timber markets.
“Even if the bill worked, the scale of created jobs will be small,” Mehl said. “The jobs will pay well because workers will have to be able to operate a variety of highly complicated equipment, but will be few in number compared to 30 years ago.”
He and environmentalists support more logging but seek more balanced development and federal land policy that also promotes fish and wildlife habitat restoration. Labrador’s bill promotes industrial forestry like states do on their land, Mehl said.
“What would be gained, or lost, in favoring the one industry over others and the repeal of the environmental safeguard laws?” Mehl asked.
Forest Service officials have cooperated with Labrador, but privately many in the agency resent the idea that somehow states can do better.
Groeschl said his Forest Service counterparts feel hamstrung by the very laws this bill would shield the states from.
“If you gave them the opportunity to manage those lands professionally, they could do a fine job,” he said.
Environmental groups also don’t like the makeup of the proposed trust board that would control the pilot project lands. It would have four members: a county commissioner, a timber industry representative, a rancher or miner and a recreation representative.
“There would be no incentive to collaborate with any conservation interest,” the Wilderness Society’s Brooks said.
But Gordon Cruickshank, a Valley County commissioner who helped develop the proposal, has been working with conservation groups to improve the health of the forests and the economy of their communities.
Labrador’s bill is designed to begin a national discussion that doesn’t have to focus on timber harvest, he said.
“It’s not about trees,” Cruickshank said. “It’s about opportunity.”
Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Labrador's Grazing Improvement Act Passes House

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Idaho First District Congressman Raúl Labrador’s Grazing Improvement Act of 2012 passed the House of Representatives today by a vote of 232-188.  The bill was included in a jobs and public lands package, H.R. 2578, the Conservation and Economic Growth Act, designed to create new jobs, grow the economy and protect the environment.

Commenting on the vote, Congressman Labrador said:  “My bill will help ranchers in Idaho and across America who are increasingly burdened with red tape by providing them a streamlined permitting process to help them access public lands.  If enacted, my bill will preserve ranching jobs, give ranchers better economic security and also offer relief to federal land managers who battle a growing backlog of pending permits, largely delayed due to endless litigation often generated by radical environmental groups totally opposed to any grazing at all.  The Bureau of Land Management itself estimates that more than 4,200 grazing permits are backlogged waiting for renewal.  This is an unacceptable number of backlogged permits, all of which negatively affect America’s livestock producers.”

The Grazing Improvement Act of 2012 would:
  • Extend Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service livestock grazing permits from 10 years to 20 years in order to give producers adequate longevity and production stability;
  • Codify appropriation rider language to require expired grazing permits to be extended under existing terms and conditions until the renewal process is complete;
  • Encourage the respective Secretaries to utilize categorical exclusions under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process to expedite permit processing; and
  • Allow trailing permits to be categorically excluded from NEPA.
“I would like to thank my colleagues from both sides of the aisle that have voted for my bill as part of an overall package of bills all designed to help preserve or create jobs by reducing federal regulations which will ultimately improve the economy while acting in an environmentally responsible manner,” concluded Congressman Labrador.

Brenda Richards, Owyhee County, Idaho rancher and member of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association said of the bill:  “I and other public lands ranchers across the West commend Representative Labrador and the bipartisan majority in Congress for standing with ranchers to pass the Grazing Improvement Act. This is a major step forward for an industry reliant upon the efficient and wise management of lands by federal agencies.  This legislation provides the economic security needed for the public lands grazing industry.”

This is Congressman Labrador’s second bill to pass the House this Congress.  His Exploring for Geothermal Energy on Federal Lands Act (H.R. 2171) passed with a bipartisan majority of 244 to 176 in February of this year.

The bill will now be sent to the Senate for its consideration.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Tombstone readies picks and shovels

The City of Tombstone is embroiled in another dynamic showdown.

The “Town too Tough to Die” is now squaring off against the U.S. Forest Service in what could be the fight of its life, a battle over water rights.

On Friday and Saturday, a group called the Shovel Brigade will gather in Tombstone and head to the Huachuca Mountains to make repairs to the city’s waterline, which was damaged by mudslides and boulders after last summer’s Monument Fire flooding. While the 26-mile waterline — fed by springs in the Huachuca Mountains — has been Tombstone’s main water source for 130 years, the U.S. Forest Service is refusing to allow mechanized equipment into areas to make the repairs. Citing the Wilderness Act, the forest service is concerned about environmental damage that heavy equipment could cause to wilderness areas while excavation work and rebuilding are underway.

“Twenty four springs and one reservoir located in the Huachuca Mountains make up our water supply,” said George Barnes, Tombstone’s city clerk. “We’ve been allowed to make repairs to three of the springs, but we have a long way to go before the entire water system is rebuilt. There are sections of the line that mudslides have buried under 12 feet of debris, and the forest service is requiring us to make the repairs by hand, using picks and shovels.”

That’s where the Shovel Brigade comes in. After learning about the city’s dilemma, communities across the country have been sending shovels to Tombstone, some bearing signatures and messages of support. To date, more than 500 shovels have arrived in Tombstone. And on Friday, around 1,000 people are expected to gather at the old high school football field off Fremont Street to raise public awareness about the city’s water issue. In addition, volunteers will be traveling to the Huachuca Mountains to work on the waterline, making repairs by hand, as stipulated by the forest service.

“We’ve received almost no cooperation from the federal government on this issue,” said Tombstone’s former mayor Jack Henderson, who was in the mountains doing excavation work on the line when agents ordered him to leave.

“Our story has been picked up by CNN, Fox, Rush Limbaugh, John Stossel and the Washington Examiner, not to mention towns all over the country. The Goldwater Institute has joined our fight and is representing us in court.”

In August, Gov. Jan Brewer declared a state of emergency and provided funds to help with the aqueduct’s repairs.

While the forest service has allowed Tombstone access to three of its springs, the city has not been allowed to work on the remaining 21.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake is currently sponsoring federal legislation that will allow Tombstone to repair the damaged water lines without going though federal permits.

In addition, Tombstone Archivist Nancy Sosa has been requested to testify before the House Natural Resources Committee on Friday regarding Flake’s bill and the challenges Tombstone has been facing.

The town’s 26-mile, gravity-fed system was built in the 1880s as the Huachuca Water Company and has been hailed “an engineering marvel.” An article that appears in an 1882 edition of the Tombstone Epitaph talks about the pipeline and its route from Miller, Marshall and Carr Canyons as it makes its way to Tombstone. In 1908 the Huachuca Water Company was purchased by A.E. Davis who sold the entire water system to the City of Tombstone in 1947. In addition, the city owns original documents showing every appropriation of the water system, with the first appropriation from Miller Canyon in 1881.

“The city’s ownership of this system predates statehood and the forest service,” said Tombstone City Councilman Steve Troncale.

“Each appropriation of water comes with a land description and map indicating the city of Tombstone owns the water rights. All of this is court ordered through sales and a declaration of ownership of property to Tombstone.”

Through the years, the system has provided an ample supply of potable water to the residents of Tombstone, along with the 400,000 tourists that visit the town annually. But now, the town is left with three repaired springs, along with one reliable well for its water. With fire season here, the ability to provide adequate water for fire suppression is a concern.

“In my opinion, the forest service has made several mistakes,” said Kevin Rudd, who was hired by Tombstone as project manager for the system’s repair work. “The first and obvious one is forest mismanagement that put Tombstone in this predicament in the first place.”

Rudd said that once the damage was done, the forest service should have allowed Tombstone into the wilderness area to “repair our system which would facilitate Tombstone’s obligation to protect its residents. Instead, they used the Wilderness Act as a tool to delay our repair process.”

Rudd also noted that the city of Tombstone began contacting the forest service about
accessing damaged areas to start the repairs “long before the situation was declared an emergency” by Brewer.

“When monsoon rains began to pound the canyons in July of 2011, Nancy Sosa began contacting the forest service to let them know about our pending dilemma because she knew from experience what was coming.”

Rudd disagrees with U.S. District Judge Frank Zapata’s recent decision to deny the city’s emergency request to repair the water system. Zapata’s decision is based on the argument that “repairs to the system appear to be substantially complete.”

Those repairs, Rudd argues, are preliminary, with temporary welds holding salvaged pipe in place where the main aqueduct was blown out. Collection structures, once made of concrete and protected by metal cages were destroyed during the mudslides and are now made of temporary sand bags and plastic pipe.

“Our situation right now is precarious,” said Barnes. “If our one well goes down, or we receive minimal flow from the springs, we’re in a very bad situation.”

However, Zapata does not feel that Tombstone faces a crisis. “Claims of a drastic water emergency related to public consumption and fire needs are overstated and speculative,” he has been quoted as stating.

Troncale points to a huge restaurant fire that occurred in Tombstone about 18 months ago where the establishment, Six Gun City, burned to the ground. The fire, he said, could have destroyed the entire town.

“It was our water supply, fire department and the backup that we got from other fire districts that saved this town from complete disaster,” he said.

“The supply of water that we have right now is not adequate to fight a fire of that magnitude. If we have another fire like Six Gun City’s, this entire town could be

During a special Cochise County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, the board unanimously supported a resolution that calls for “…the cooperation of the U.S. Forest Service in the repair and maintenance of its (Tombstone’s) municipal water

The supervisors’ support came as welcome news to Tombstone officials, said Barnes. In part, the resolution states that the forest service has impaired the ability of agents of the city of Tombstone “to make repairs to its water system by restricting access…” to the system. Concerns about the health and safety of the residents of Tombstone, along with its visitors also are noted.

In addition, the resolution supports Tombstone’s right to “immediate and unimpaired access to Coronado National Forest lands located in the Huachuca Mountains, free of federal restraint to make all necessary repairs to its water

Tombstone city officials are hoping the publicity the town has been receiving, along with legislative support, will generate enough public pressure to allow the work to be completed without further delays.

“Our beef is with the forest service, not the forest,” said Barnes. “We want to re-establish what we already had.”

Henderson agrees. “With the monsoons just around the corner, we’re bracing for more damage,” he said.

“The Tombstone Shovel Brigade is just another layer of support we’ve received in this convoluted process. The good news is, we’ve already won this fight in the court of public opinion, and the state of Arizona recognizes our rights. Now we need to do is convince the federal government.”