Efforts against Oregon graziers persist

Feb 3, 2011

Angi-grazing groups file lawsuit to remove grazing on 39 USFS allotments

Less than two weeks after a major court decision sharply curtailed public land grazing in central Oregon, two Oregon-based anti-grazing groups have filed a lawsuit that, if successful, will significantly reduce federal grazing permits in that state yet again. The Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), as well as the Hells Canyon Preservation Council (HPC), filed suit in Oregon Federal District Court on Jan. 11. Their complaint calls for a total removal of grazing on some 39 allotments scattered across the Wallowa Whitman, Malheur, and Umatilla national forests. Any decision resulting from the filed complaint will affect an estimated 42 federal permittees grazing roughly 440,000 acres in eastern and central Oregon.

The complaint contends that the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) inappropriately allowed grazing to continue through the misuse of a ‘rider’ in the 2005 congressional appropriations bill. From 2005 to 2008, the rider allowed USFS, under certain circumstances, to categorically exclude the reauthorization of grazing permits from the Environmental Assessment and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) documentation requirements set forth in the National Environmental Policy Act. According to the law, there were specific criteria under which the rider could be used. It could only be used to continue existing grazing plans with no alterations, USFS was required to conduct monitoring to ensure that grazing was consistent with the goals set forth in the management plan of each individual forest, and the decision to allow grazing must have been consistent with agency policies concerning "extraordinary circumstances," including the presence of endangered or threatened species or designated special wilderness areas.

The complaint focuses largely on the third requirement, alleging that USFS had not adequately assessed the potential effect grazing might have on wildlife habitat, particularly fish species such as steelhead or bull trout. On the subject of wilderness areas, such as the Hells Canyon Wilderness Area in the state’s northeast corner, the organizations contend that USFS failed to consider the areas’ "recreational and scenic value" when re-authorizing grazing permits. "The Forest Service has repeatedly misapplied this grazing rider across these three forests," reads the complaint. "Because the agency has failed to adequately monitor these areas and the resources they contain, it cannot show that protective standards are being met and that grazing does not pose any serious threats."

Representatives of USFS in Oregon declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.

Though seldom used in Oregon, lawsuits challenging such so-called "categorical exclusions" by anti-grazing groups have been on the increase around the West in recent years in their efforts to remove cattle and sheep from public lands nationwide. In a similar case decided in Idaho last year, Western Watersheds Project successfully brought a temporary end to grazing on 16 allotments scattered over eight national forests throughout the West. A recent case in California challenged the use of such exclusions on 100 allotments in that state. In that case, USFS officials elected to settle with anti-grazing organizations on all but seven of the challenged allotments. If a judge finds in favor of ONDA and HPC in the present case in Oregon, USFS will be sent back to the drawing board, forced to draft new individual EIS statements for each of the affected allotments.

According to Rod Childers, Oregon Cattlemen’s Association committee chair and Wallowa County rancher, producers are attempting to determine what they can do to affect the eventual outcome of the suit.

"We had a conference call with those permittees a week ago," says Childers.

He adds that another is planned in the near future, with legal counsel, to assess their options. As in other cases, it is likely that permittees will need to file as interveners in the case in order to have a voice in the courtroom, a process that can result in substantial legal costs.

For at least a few permittees, the process will be somewhat familiar. Several of them have seen grazing permits disappear once already this year, the result of a decision rendered by Judge Ancer Haggerty of Portland. That decision, the culmination of a three-year legal wrangle between ONDA, ranchers, and USFS, resulted in the closure of grazing on seven allotments in the Malheur National Forest. The producers in that case are still fighting the decision, pressing the judge to lift the ban, and remain determined to hold onto their businesses and their way of life.

"You’ve got to admire some of these folks for not just saying to heck with it and giving up," says Childers. "We’re getting hit right and left, and it’s getting a little bit scary." — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent