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For the week of October 8 - 14, 2003

News

Grazing to be curtailed in East Fork drainage


 "Iíve been criticized quite a bit about placing the value of the health of natural resources beyond other values."

ó DEB COOPER, Former SNRA Area Ranger


By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

The Sawtooth National Recreation Area is scheduled today to release a long-awaited environmental study and related management decisions on cattle grazing in the East Fork of the Salmon River valley on the eastern slope of the White Cloud mountains.

The decision appears to reach a compromise position between proposed curtailment of grazing in the area and the status quo, which was deemed to be damaging to natural resources and recreation opportunities.

In March, the U.S. Forest Service released a draft of the Upper and Lower East Fork Cattle and Horse Allotment Management Plans that proposed to reduce in half the size and scope of two grazing allotments used by seven Custer County ranchers.

The final decision, made by Area Ranger Deb Cooper before her departure for Alaska last week, 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 last three years.

The temporary closures, totaling 23,500 acres, include some areas specified in the draft plan in March for permanent closures.

Areas retained for permanent closure total 27,620 acres.

In an interview two weeks ago, Cooper 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 theyíre willing to express that concern to leaders in the agency.

"Iíve been criticized quite a bit about placing the value of the health of natural resources beyond other values," she added.

In a June interview in Sun Valley, U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said he viewed the Forest Serviceís draft environmental impact statement on East Fork grazing as a "product with no intent to sustain grazing in the East Fork, period."

"Iím not going to sit here and micromanage, but I really view it as an elimination," he said. "When you reduce grazing by 60 to 70 percent, you make it uneconomical to graze. The numbers donít make it worth getting the cattle to the allotment."

Cooperís decision culminates 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.

"We carefully reviewed these letters," said SNRA Acting Area Ranger Terry Clark.

But in addition to the letters, legislative mandates, involvement with affected ranchers and advice from resource specialists and regulatory agencies were used to help make a decision, Clark said.

Additionally, a court decision issued on April 2 by Federal District Judge B. Lynn Winmill forced the SNRAís hand. According to the judgeís decision, the SNRA was in violation of the SNRAís enabling legislation, as well as the 1995 Recisions Act, in failing to update the outdated plans, last completed in 1985 for the Lower East Fork Allotment and in 1976 for the Lower East Fork Allotment.

The release of the environmental study this week meets a deadline set by Winmill.

It was the landís inability to sustain grazing that ultimately spurred the project and its results.

"Our inability to achieve desired conditions under current management by both the Forest Service and permitees is not about finding and placing blame, but it is about conditions that are inherent to the terrain," Cooper said. "The majority of the land involved with these two allotments is very steep, rocky, covered with timber and exceedingly difficult to manage."

Cooper said that, of the 131,317 acres in the two allotments, approximately 20 to 30 percent of the land produces abundant forage, is close to water and is not too steep to graze livestock.

"Historically, these allotments were managed for sheep grazing," she said. "Back in the 1960s, these sheep allotments were converted to cattle allotments. So far, we have been unable to achieve desired conditions across all acres of each allotmentóconditions that meet the Forest Plan standards and mandates from Congress."

In rural Custer County, agriculture and related activities proved the major economic base.

"Specific agricultural activities associated with ranching and farming are considered by many of the local people as the economic mainstay of the county," according to the draft EIS.

According to Forest Service documents, agriculture and agriculture-related services comprised approximately 190 of the 1,220 jobs in Challis in 2000. Mining ranked first with 217 jobs in 2000.

According to the Forest Service, a number of changes have occurred since grazing allotment management plans were finalized for the east slope of the White Clouds in the 1970s. Most of the changes have prompted increased scrutiny.

They include new standards in land and resource management plans, a number of fish and wildlife species listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, increased recreation and associated conflicts with livestock and the conversion of allotments from sheep to cattle.

"Every allotment has its challenges, but I donít think thereís any allotment on the SNRA thatís as difficult to manage as these two," Cooper said.

 

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