Forest Service to rework analysis

April 26, 2013 09:55 am

by KATY NESBITT / The Observer 

Ranchers grazing on public land under suit the past two years can continue business as usual while the U.S. Forest Service reworks its environmental analyses on Wallowa-Whitman and Umatilla national forest allotments. 

The Ninth District Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on most of their claims that the Forest Service reauthorized livestock grazing on public land without conducting proper environmental reviews. 

The Hells Canyon Preservation Council and the Oregon Natural Desert Association filed the suit in January 2011.

U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman’s final ruling, Feb. 22, upheld most of the original opinion by Judge Paul Papak’s August 2012 opinion, but deferred to the Forest Service on the issue of relying on exclusionary fencing to assume livestock are not able to access fenced areas and cause resource damage to streams and riparian areas.

The plaintiffs contended that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act by renewing grazing permits between 2005 and 2008 in the region’s three national forests — Wallowa-Whitman, Umatilla and Malheur — without studying in detail the potential environmental effects of livestock grazing.

In 2005, Congress passed a rider that allowed the Forest Service to grant 10-year grazing permits to ranchers without doing an extensive environmental study. To qualify for this temporary exemption, the agency had to show that the current grazing schedule was not detrimental to native species, water quality or other environmental standards.

The plaintiffs contended that officials from each of the three national forests, by neglecting to require intensive scientific studies of the areas, failed to show such proof, yet still granted 10-year grazing permits under the auspices of Congress’ 2005 decision.

Jennifer Swartz, attorney for Hells Canyon Preservation Council, said the Forest Service withdrew the categorical exclusion decisions on seven Dooley Mountain allotments on the La Grande District and added those allotments to its schedule for additional environmental analysis.

The plaintiffs reached an out of court resolution on four categorical exclusion decisions originally at issue on the Malheur National Forest. 

Last, the Forest Service issued two decisions pertaining to eight allotments on the Upper Imnaha River. Plaintiffs raised claims with respect to the Upper Imnaha decision, but did not seek to challenge application of the exclusion authority of the Keeler allotment, a small allotment with only four horses.

The Forest Service and the permittees who intervened in the suit have until May 6 to appeal.