Katy Nesbitt
The La Grande Observer

ENTERPRISE — Eastern Oregon cattlemen and elected officials are voicing concern that changes to grazing standards in the most recent version of the Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision are a violation of environmental law.

In 2016, a draft of the Blue Mountains Plan, a guiding document for land management across the Wallowa-Whitman, Umatilla and Malheur national forests, was released for public comment. Matt McElligott, Oregon Cattlemen’s Association Public Lands Committee chair, said between the time the public comment period concluded at the end of 2016 and February 2017, significant changes were made to grazing standards. Those changes, McElligott said, entailed an increase in stubble height requirements on public grazing land, especially along stream banks, also known as the green line.

“Adding this piece after the comment period is a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act,” McElligott said. “Such a drastic change from the original intent of the plan means it has to be re-opened.”

Stubble height, McElligott said, is a trigger point for moving cattle.

“They changed stubble height from 4 inches to up to 8 inches at the green line, and 8 inches of grass is a dang good year,” McElligott said.

The new standards fall under what the Forest Service calls Watershed Condition Framework and the Aquatic and Riparian Conservation Strategy. McElligott said he’s taken his complaint to Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and Rep. Greg Walden. McElligott said he recently met face-to-face with Tony Tooke, the new chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Beyond the potential violation of law, McElligott said, the new grazing standard language requires biologists in each forest to classify every stream within a grazing allotment as properly functioning, functioning at risk or impaired, within the next three to five years.

“It’s impossible to get that done in that time,” McElligott said.

If the forests were not able to complete the classification, they would be violating the National Environmental Policy Act.

Maura Laverty, the Wallowa-Whitman and Umatilla National Forest Range Program manager, said the changes to the plan were made in response to public meetings and comment letters.

“We incorporated some different science because there was criticism we were not using the best science available,” she said.

The Aquatic and Riparian Conservation Strategy is science used by the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Region, Laverty said, and comes from Forest Service fisheries management guidelines for resident and anadromous fish.

The new science inserted into the Forest Plan to guide grazing management, Laverty said, was developed in 2011.

“The new standards are based on Watershed Condition Framework, a national direction we are going to start using,” she said.

This summer, Wallowa County Commissioners wrote to Jim Peña, Pacific Northwest regional forester, asking the Forest Service to halt the current revision process and provide time for cooperative management development with affected communities.

“The proposed plan will be very harmful to our livestock industry, timber industry and recreational opportunities in our county,” the letter said.

The commissioners reiterated McElligott’s concern that setting a three-year time frame to classify every sub-watershed on the three forests is unreasonable.

“The unrealistic nature of such a workload, with diminished staff, will inevitably lead to restricted or eliminated turnout (of cattle) for (public grazing allotment) permittees due to the failure of the Forest Service or other cooperating agencies to meet the imposed deadline,” the commissioners wrote.

Peña’s return letter said the Forest Service has made a concerted effort to communicate with the county since the Forest Service’s team of specialists began fashioning the forest plan’s revision in 2004.

“At each stage in the Forest Plan Revision process, the Forest Service has carefully considered Wallowa County’s comments,” Peña wrote. “We have heard you and we have modified the Forest Plan to address your concerns where appropriate. It is now time to move this planning process forward. Accordingly, I have instructed the forest supervisors and staff to complete the forest plan.”

The next step, Peña wrote, is entering formal Endangered Species Act consultation with the National
Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Wallowa County’s letter to Peña also went to U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the National Marine Fisheries Service that will be consulting with the Forest Service on how the plan manages habitat for endangered steelhead and salmon.

Chris Oliver, the Marine Fisheries Service’s assistant administrator, replied to the commissioners’ letter. He wrote, “We will initiate formal consultation with the USFS (Forest Service) when we receive a request to do so and during consultation we will consider the effects of the proposals on ESA-listed species and designated critical habitats. As part of that consultation process, if we believe additional measures are needed to ensure that our trust species are sufficiently protected, we will work with the USFS to also be mindful of effects to local communities.”

Susan Roberts, Wallowa County Board of Commissioners chairman, said members of the Eastern Oregon Counties Association are scheduled to meet with Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, as well as Forest Service and Marine Fisheries Service staff Oct. 16 in Pendleton.