Katy Nesbitt
The La Grande Observer

ENTERPRISE — Changes to grazing requirements have been a pressing topic for public land permittees the past few months, but recent meetings with federal agency and congressional representatives are putting their worries at ease.

An all-day meeting in Baker City Oct. 31 at the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest Supervisor’s office was a follow-up to one arranged by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, Oct. 16. The meetings were an opportunity for Northeast Oregon ranchers and county commissioners to meet with U.S. Forest Service, National Marine Fisheries and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff to hammer out a way to protect fish-bearing streams on public grazing allotments while allowing the livestock producers to continue using the land.

The Blue Mountains Forest Plan is an overarching document guiding decisions on the Wallowa-Whitman, Umatilla and Malheur national forests. Wallowa-Whitman National Forest Supervisor Tom Montoya said this week’s meeting focused on finding common ground among the agencies and the counties.

“It was a productive meeting,” Montoya said. “People said we need to do this more often — get around the table and share our thoughts in a respectful way.”

Ranchers and county commissioners agreed that their concerns were heard, especially in regard to using grass stubble height along the banks of fish-bearing streams to measure a watershed’s health.

Todd Nash is a public land permittee and Wallowa County Commissioner who has been actively involved in meetings with other ranchers, county commissioners and the Forest Service to find middle ground. He said he was pleased with the results of the Baker City meeting on Tuesday.

One of the major bones of contention with the plan among ranchers was something referred to as Watershed Condition Framework, which would require ranchers to leave taller grass stubble after grazing.

“We got buy-in from the Forest Service that Watershed Condition Framework is out the door,” Nash said.

Matt McElligott of North Powder was asked to attend the meeting as a representative of the cattle industry. He said the county commissioners and the ranchers asked that the Forest Service use grazing guidelines and not standards. The commissioners also asked that those guidelines be assessed allotment by allotment rather than across the more than 5 million acres on the three forests.

“When we left the meeting the other day, we got close to all the points the commissioners wanted,” McElligott said.

Montoya said instead of using standards based on strict measurements, the idea is to focus on the desired condition of the land.

“The metric isn’t the goal. Good habitat, streambanks and water quality are,” Montoya said.

Those in attendance methodically went over each point step by step, hashed out the terminology and agreed to the items proposed for inclusion in the Pacific Northwest Regional Forester’s Record of Decision due early next year, McElligott said.

“I’m optimistic,” McElligott said, “but the proof is in the pudding.”

See complete story in Monday's Observer