Oregon grazers at odds with agency over restoration project

Sep 2, 2011

For ranchers grazing their cattle on portions of central Oregon’s Malheur National Forest (MNF), the past few years have been characterized by uncertainty. In the Blue Mountain Ranger District, which covers much of the upper reaches of the John Day River system, constant litigation has threatened the continuance of grazing permits every year since 2007, often leaving ranchers and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) personnel alike unsure as to when, or even if, turnouts would occur in a given year.

Court battles and meetings with the lawyer, say some, have become as much a part of doing business as feeding or branding. In the midst of this instability, a controversial restoration effort by USFS on one stream in the system threatens to add further strain to rancher/agency relations in a region once known for successful collaboration.

The heart of the dispute lies in the need to provide habitat for the Mid Columbia River (MCR) steelhead, a fish whose spawning grounds extend into the upper reaches of the John Day system and whose endangered species status dictates priority consideration in decisions made by MNF. Beginning in 2007, anti-grazing groups, led by the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), filed suit to remove grazing from the forest in order to protect MCR steelhead habitat.

Their arguments were based on alleged violations of the Bank Alteration Standard, a measurement tool used to assess cattle impact on fish habitat. The bank standard was designed by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and written into the Biological Opinion, a regulatory document used to govern actions on the forest that may impact endangered species. Under the bi-op, measurements for the standard consisted of counting disturbances, such as hoof prints, on a given section of stream. If the number of disturbed samples exceeded 10 percent of the total, corrective action was required, including the possible removal of grazing. Ranchers, and even some USFS experts, have long argued that the bank standard is a poor measure of grazing impact.

Nevertheless, District Judge Ancer Haggerty has ruled repeatedly that, for grazing to continue on the forest, the standard must be met. Under a Programmatic Biological Opinion also issued in 2007 for fish habitat restoration activities in Oregon and Washington, restoration work was begun on several streams in the system, including Camp Creek, which drains into the John Day’s middle fork.

In late July of this year, work began along Camp Creek to remove old log weirs, once thought to be beneficial to fish habitat, as well as to install fish friendly culverts and more natural debris in the stream, primarily trees. Ranchers, however, were quick to point out the inconsistencies between the bank standards they must adhere to and the restoration efforts, which they claim are far more damaging to the stream bank.

“There’s no comparison,” says area rancher Ken Brooks. “In the process of taking those old weirs out, they destroyed all the willows and anything that was anywhere close to the stream. Then they took excavators up the banks to drag down trees and stuff those into the stream.”

Another John Day area rancher, Ken Holliday, points out the sharp contrast between the six mile project on Camp Creek and the conditions he and the other ranchers are obligated to maintain on their allotments. “It looks like a bomb went off down there; it’s astounding,” says Holliday. “If we have a hoof print that’s a quarter of an inch deep within so many feet of the creek, we’ve got to move our cows. Yet these folks can take three excavators down there for a month and fill that creek with debris for six miles?” According to District Ranger John Gubel, while MNF personnel sympathiz es with rancher’s concerns, they stand by the validity of the project. “We can understand the perception of a double standard,” he says. “We’re trying to hold them to some pretty stringent standards on the stream banks, and then we’ve got this other activity. But they’re two different actions,” he adds. “The grazing is a repeated annual event, whereas this is a 20-30 year event.”

In light of the project’s nature and location, Gubel says that opposition did not come as a complete surprise, but points out that the site will improve as the project continues. “It looks like a construction zone right now, but we’re not done yet,” he says. “We still have revegetation coming up this fall and by next spring, I think it will look pretty good.”

The debris in the stream, he says, is a necessary part of the improvement strategy. “What they’re trying to do is provide some of the structure and complexity in the streams necessary for fish habitat,” he said. “The old weirs, which went in during the late 1980s, were basically cemented in place. The stream couldn’t move and adjust. These trees aren’t anchored as such, and they are going to move around some.”

Gubel says that this ability to move will reduce the widening and shallowing of the stream that was resulting from the weirs. He explains the nature of the Biological Opinion that maintains the bank standard while allowing for these types of restoration projects. “The way that (NMFS) looks at this is, they’re acknowledging that these kinds of activities will have a short term impact, but down the road it’s going to produce long term benefits in terms of habitat.”

Benefits that, Gubel hopes, will translate to increased opportunities for multiple uses, including grazing. “The better the conditions are, the greater our flexibility in terms of our ability to manage the ground,” he says.

The degree of latitude that MNF has to manage the forest is governed by the Biological Opinion. Currently, a new bi-op is undergoing the drafting process.

Implementation, per Haggerty’s order, is scheduled for next March, following NMFS approval of the document. Among other changes, the new bi-op does call for less stringent bank standards. The changes, however, depend entirely on NMFS approval of the plan.

“We’re confident in what we’re doing, but it is a give and take with NMFS to see what they’re going to allow in the bi-op; it’s not solely up to us,” says Gubel. “They’re the ones that determine if we need to do more or do less.” Improvements such as those on Camp Creek, he says, can go a long way in showing NMFS that MNF is serious about fish habitat.

For the majority of the ranchers, the project, in and of itself, is not the problem. “My family has done more conservation projects than anybody else on the upper John Day,” says Holliday. “The problem is not that they are trying to improve it, it’s that we are being held to a different standard. They can do this, but we are being shoved off as if our cows are going to ruin everything. It’s ridiculous. You can do any darn thing you want, as long as it’s in the name of fish recovery,” adds Brooks. “If I were to do half of what they are doing right now on private land, I’d be in jail.”

Despite the current disagreement, Gubel is hopeful that the spirit of collaboration that has long been the hallmark of the region can continue. “I really want to give a lot of credit to the permittees,” he says. “They’ve been innovative, they’ve tried to do the right thing, and they’re the ones putting their lives on the line. We would not be in as good a shape as we are today if not for their efforts.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow right now, but we’re hoping that this will be a successful outcome for everybody. We’ll have improving fisheries and a sustainable and profitable grazing program here.” — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent