BLM cancels WWP’s Idaho grazing permit

Feb 19, 2010

In a notice issued at the end of last month, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) field office in Challis, ID, stated its intention to cancel grazing permits linked to land controlled by the Western Watersheds Project (WWP), an anti-grazing advocacy group based in Hailey, ID. The notice, which was issued by Field Manager David Rosenkrance, cites misrepresentations on the part of Valley Sun LLC, the permit holder, as well as repeated failures to comply with regulations, as the primary reasons for revoking the permit. "After careful consideration of the facts, the lack of communication and cooperation, and the violation of federal regulations by Valley Sun, my proposed decision is to cancel Valley Sun’s grazing permit in its entirety," stated Rosenkrance in his decision.

The permit in question covers three allotments linked to a 440-acre base property along the east fork of the Salmon River. The property, which is now known as the Greenfire Preserve, was acquired by Valley Sun in 2000 and has been managed since that time under a conservation easement agreement with WWP. From late 2001 through the end of 2006, the sole member of the LLC was WWP. Because of this relationship, Custer County, ID, elected in 2006 to deny the land’s tax exempt status under Idaho’s agricultural exemption, pointing out that WWP had essentially made a conservation agreement with itself. Following that, Valley Sun LLC was sold to Gordon Younger. Younger, a Seattle packaging business owner, was himself in the news earlier this year as a result of a civil rights lawsuit he filed against the State of Idaho in relation to grazing leases on state lands. In that case, he was awarded $50,000 and extracted a promise from the state to make major changes to the rules governing how leases on state lands, and particularly the auction process, are managed.

According to Rosenkrance, there were three major issues that led to the Challis office’s decision to rescind the permit. The first was a failure to maintain range improvements, improvements that Valley Sun had been required to repair under a cooperative agreement with BLM. According to federal regulations, holders of grazing permits are required to perform upkeep and maintenance on improvements, such as fencing and water troughs, at the behest of the BLM office, maintenance that Rosenkrance says never occurred. Adding insult to injury, in 2009 while protesting the BLM’s plan to allow other grazer’s cattle onto one of the allotments, WWP cited the poor condition of the range improvements as a reason to disallow any grazing. Pointing to range improvements that they, as managers, had been responsible for stewarding.

The second issue centered on Valley Sun’s failure to make any use of the grazing permit. Under federal law, a permittee cannot simply elect not to utilize a grazing permit. Although there are situations where non-use is allowed, the practice must be approved through BLM.

"Under the regulations, you can have non-use for up to three years, basically for convenience reasons," says Rosenkrance. "You can also have it based on conservation use, one year at a time, as long as the resource conditions support the need for that use."

From 2001 to 2005, Valley Sun applied for, and was granted, non-use permission for conservation purposes. In 2006, they applied again for non-use, stating that they were in the process of acquiring livestock to fill the permit, but that animals were not yet available to graze the allotments. They gave this same reason again in their non-use applications for 2007 and 2008. In 2009, they once again filed for non-use status for conservation purposes. Rosenkrance denied the request. In addition, the WWP Web site listed retirement of the BLM allotments as one of the long-term management goals of the Greenfire Preserve, and spoke of the number of acres that had been removed from grazing, statements that seemed incongruous with Valley Sun’s claim that cattle acquisition was underway.

"Valley Sun LLC and WWP have provided (BLM) with baffling, contradictory, and apparently false statements," stated the decision. "I can only conclude that Valley Sun never intended to purchase livestock to activate their permit, and that WWP, not Valley Sun LLC, is the day-to-day manager."

Who is actually in charge, according to Rosenkrance, is the third issue that led to this decision. According to regulations, if an entity loses control of the base property associated with a permit, the permit must be transferred to whomever is in control. Rosenkrance alleges that, as a result of the conservation agreement with WWP, Valley Sun is in this situation.

"The conservation agreement put control of the property into WWP, instead of Valley Sun," he states. "According to regulations, when you lose control of that base property, you’ve got to do a transfer, which they never did."

During a 2009 appeal of a grazing decision, Valley Sun stated that WWP was the manager of the property under a 2007 agreement made when Gordon Younger acquired the LLC.

"Under the law, you have to transfer the permit within 90 days," points out Rosenkrance, adding "and this was two years later."

Under the terms of the decision, the permit holder has 15 days to protest the decision and explain why they feel it is inappropriate. Jon Marvel, director and founder of WWP, has already pledged to make that protest. Marvel maintains that the decision is a result of the agency favoring ranching interests.

"There has been and continues to be a bias in the BLM against conservation," Marvel told the Associated Press. Rosenkrance, who received the protest on Feb. 16, simply feels that conservation groups should be governed by the same regulations that affect ranchers using public lands.

"A grazing permit is a privilege," he points out. "Everybody’s got to follow the same rules." — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent