East Fork grazing
from multiple sides
By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer
Groups on both sides of a debate over
cattle grazing on public land in the East Fork of the Salmon River valley have
appealed a recent U.S. Forest Service decision that curtails the practice in the
Two environmental groups and a fisheries
biologist have contended the Forest Service’s proposed management is too lax. On
the other hand, ranchers who will be affected by the decision contend the Forest
Service is proposing to restrict grazing too severely.
In a nutshell, the ranchers want the
Forest Service to allow grazing to continue unchanged. The environmentalists
want grazing there abolished.
The appeals are important, because
decisions made for the East Fork area are likely to set a standard for grazing
management in other parts of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. An
environmental study of four sheep grazing allotments in the Sawtooth and Big
Wood River valleys is already under way, and up to four more cattle allotments
are scheduled for review in 2005.
"Whatever the rulings are here, we’ll
adjust accordingly," said Carol Brown, Sawtooth National Forest appeals
The Upper and Lower East Fork Cattle and
Horse Allotment Management Plans are the result of more than five years of work
and were completed in October. The plan appears to reach a compromise between
proposed curtailment of grazing in the area and the status quo.
The final decision, made by former SNRA
Area Ranger Deb Cooper before her departure for Alaska, will temporarily reduce
livestock grazing in selected areas to allow the land and flora to recuperate.
When specified resource conditions are met, livestock use will be allowed to
resume at levels slightly higher than in the past three years.
The temporary closures, totaling 23,500
acres, include some areas specified in a draft plan, released in March, for
Areas retained for permanent closure total
But for the appellants, the compromise
decision fell short.
In one appeal, the Baker Ranch
Partnership, a consortium of East Fork ranchers, contended grazing should not be
termed a "secondary" use in management of the SNRA, as it was in a 2002 U.S.
federal district court ruling. The appeal seeks unchanged use of the grazing
allotments, which the Bakers said are in "showcase" condition.
Another appeal, by East Fork ranchers
Wayne, Melodie, Richard and Betty Baker, charges that the Forest Service’s
decision was based on poor science and a poor range of alternatives.
That 18-page appeal highlights ways cattle
grazing can aid the ecosystem. It also counters many specific points contained
in the Forest Service document.
On the other side of the issue, Western
Watersheds Project and the Boulder-White Clouds Council are asking for grazing
to be phased out in the two allotments. The groups’ appeal contends that
wildlife species and riparian vegetation will continue to suffer under the
proposed management plan.
The groups also charge that the Forest
Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to analyze the
impacts of the proposed installation of up to 15 miles of fencing at or near
9,000 feet in the White Cloud Mountains.
Jon Marvel, founder of the Hailey-based
Western Watersheds Project, said he believes "a lot of political pressure has
been brought to bear" on the Forest Service regarding this decision.
In a September interview, Cooper indicated
that charge is at least partly true. She said senior Forest Service officials
and Idaho congressional representatives gave the East Fork environmental review
unprecedented attention. The final decision was not hers alone, she said.
There was a "heightened level of interest
internal to the Forest Service on this decision, and many people helped work on
the decision," she said. "Certainly the Idaho delegation is concerned about
maintaining ranching within the state of Idaho, and they’re willing to express
that concern to leaders in the agency.
"I’ve been criticized quite a bit about
placing the value of the health of natural resources beyond other values," she
When asked about congressional involvement
in the decision, U.S. Sen. Larry Craig’s spokesman, Will Hart, said only that
the decision is not how the senator would have liked it to turn out.
"We’re in a multiple use system, and we
need to have multiple use," Hart said. "We don’t believe that it’s fair to
eliminate grazing on 70 percent of the area. There needs to be dialogue and
discussion instead of lawsuits and easy talking points."
Cooper’s decision culminated nearly six
years of work and analysis on the two allotments, formerly totaling 131,000
acres and now reduced to about 115,000 acres.
The Forest Service began the process of
analyzing the two allotments in the mid-1990s. During the intervening years,
there were three separate opportunities for public review. The most recent
public comment and review phase garnered 224 letters.
Brown said appeals of Forest Service
environmental studies are quite common.
"Although we have a lot of agreement on
our actions, in this case we have groups on both sides that are unhappy," she