Tuesday, April 27, 2010

In Response to Comments re: Forest Service Aims to Reward Bad Behavior (posted 4/12/10)

I agree whole-heartedly with Mr./Ms. Larson’s opinion that it is unreasonable “to take every little whim and vent without the facts,” which is why I am in the process of carefully reviewing the Forest Service’s recent environmental analysis for the Eastside Grazing Allotment Management Plans Project.

This project proposes to reauthorize grazing on 5 allotments, reintroduce livestock grazing to an allotment that has been closed since 2006, and as Ranger Wiedenmann notes in his comment—adjust 4 allotment boundaries. These boundary adjustments would result in approximately 6,500 acres of public lands that are not currently authorized for livestock grazing being added to the 85,000+ acres that are already open to livestock. As I state in my original post, this current proposal to increase the acreage of federal forest land adjacent to the Eagle Cap wilderness for grazing would include sensitive streams and meadows like the West Eagle creek area.

Mr./Ms. Larson’s comment attempts to exploit what may be a mistake about which species of fish do or don’t inhabit this particular creek to suggest that my entire opinion “regarding the management of the West Eagle Meadow [is] rife with errors and unfounded allegations.” It seems that Mr./Ms. Larson was so focused on this single detail that he/she missed my overarching point: the area I visited, as well as many other pristine backcountry areas and sensitive riparian areas that are now part of this grazing proposal have been subjected to repeated unauthorized livestock use for several years. One need not look beyond the Forest Service’s own analysis for multiple admissions regarding unauthorized livestock use associated with these grazing allotments to confirm my statement. (See e.g., Eastside Grazing AMP Project EA, pp. 24, 30, 36, 177). And now, rather than address these violations by imposing restrictions or other measures designed to ensure compliance with the current grazing permit terms and conditions, the Forest Service is instead proposing to expand grazing privileges.

In my view, extending allotment boundaries is not an appropriate solution to livestock trespass and, yes, in effect, rewards bad behavior.

One doesn’t need a background in “plant or meadow ecology” to correctly observe that the West Eagle Creek is indeed a sensitive riparian area and that if adequately protected will provide important fish habitat—maybe not for anadromous fish that are no longer able to reach the area due to human created barriers (note, however, that the Forest Service’s own analysis indicates that West Eagle Creek has never been surveyed for steelhead, Chinook, or Bull Trout spawning grounds, so it’s unclear what aquatic surveys of this stream Ranger Wiedenmann is referring to in his comment, see Eastside Grazing AMP Project EA, pp. 119-120, and the Forest Service does admit that imperiled redband trout do currently occupy this stream, p. 116. Moreover, the US Fish & Wildlife Service has proposed designating portions of West Eagle Creek as critical habitat for Bull Trout: http://www.fws.gov/pacific/bulltrout/crithab/oregon/20%20Powder%20River_final.pdf).

The facts, which Mr./Ms. Larson claims I’ve disregarded, support HCPC’s concern that past management of this area has been inadequate. According to the Forest Service's analysis the survey of habitat conditions for the West Eagle Creek is close to twenty years old, fails to provide data on streambank stability, and indicates that management objectives for stream width/depth ratios are far from being met (Eastside Grazing AMP Project EA, p. 109). West Eagle creek is also, in fact, on Oregon’s list of water quality impaired streams due to the level of habitat modification it has received. (Eastside Grazing AMP Project EA, p. 115).

Of particular importance to this discussion is the fact that according to the Forest Service’s own analysis, the West Eagle creek is the one stream in the entire 85,000+ acre project area considered to be of the type that is most sensitive to disturbance, with a “very high” potential for streambank erosion and loss of stability from removal of streamside vegetation. (Eastside Grazing AMP Project EA, pp. 125-128).

And while we’re addressing the “facts,” I’d be delighted to review the “decades of research and practical experimentation” that supports Mr./Ms. Larson’s suggestion that riparian areas can actually benefit from livestock grazing. I am well aware of the numerous studies, such as those cited by the Forest Service’s own analysis, that demonstrate the contrary. Perhaps, Mr./Ms. Larson has his/her own pair of those rose-colored glasses. In a paper summarizing dozens of peer-reviewed papers on the impacts of grazing, the authors concluded:

Livestock grazing has damaged approximately 80% of stream and riparian ecosystems in the western United States. Although these areas compose only 0.5-1.0% of the overall landscape, a disproportionately large percentage (~70-80%) of all desert, shrub, and grassland plants and animals depend on them. The introduction of livestock into these areas 100-200 years ago caused a disturbance with many ripple effects. Livestock seek out water, succulent forage, and shade in riparian areas, leading to trampling and overgrazing of stream banks, soil erosion, loss of stream bank stability, declining water quality, and drier, hotter conditions.

These changes have reduced habitat for riparian plant species, cold-water fish, and wildlife, thereby causing many native species to decline in number or go locally extinct. Such modifications can lead to large-scale changes in adjacent and downstream ecosystems. Despite these disturbances, some people support continued grazing. These advocates argue that most of the damage occurred 50-100 years ago; however, recent studies clearly document that livestock continue to degrade western streams and rivers, and that riparian recovery is contingent upon total rest from grazing.

A.J. Belsky, A. Matzke, S. Uselman, Survey of Livestock Influences on Stream and Riparian Ecosystems in the Western United States, Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, 1999, Vol. 54, pp. 419-431; see also Eastside Grazing AMP Project E, p. 125).

For those interested in further reading on how livestock grazing can impair water quality, I suggest checking out this recent article on the negative effects of livestock waste in our public water bodies: http://www.sacbee.com/2010/04/25/2703875/bee-exclusive-livestock-waste.html

I appreciate the opportunity for continued dialogue on this very important topic and welcome additional comments.

Jennifer Schwartz, Staff Attorney/Connectivity Campaign Director

Monday, April 12, 2010

Forest Service Aims to Reward Bad Behavior (again)

It was a crisp early October day when my husband and I set out last fall to hike the West Eagle trail leading into the Eagle Cap wilderness on the Wallowa Whitman National Forest. We were off to a late start and there was more snow on the ground than anticipated so we ended up spending most of our day enjoying the West Eagle meadow. The West Eagle Creek meanders through this large meadow and is home to imperiled Chinook salmon, bull trout and steelhead, all federally listed as threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

It was nice to see several young trout enjoying the cool waters, but we couldn’t shake our rising disappointment as we continued to notice more and more signs of fresh cattle trampling along the stream banks and cow pies throughout the meadow. Signs of livestock use in critical aquatic habitat is always troubling, but it was all the more upsetting in this instance since I knew that cows were not authorized to be in this area—and for good reason.

Unfortunately, these lands adjacent to the southwestern border of the Eagle Cap wilderness have been subjected to a history of livestock trespass. Cattle are set out to roam these vast federal forest lands each summer and fall, and quite often stray beyond the authorized grazing boundaries into pristine areas like West Eagle meadow, crucial fish spawning and rearing habitat, and designated wilderness.

The disappointing news doesn’t end there though. To make matters worse the Forest Service is currently proposing to extend the boundaries of six grazing allotments in this area, which already total well over 80,000 acres of federal public land, to include the West Eagle meadow and other pristine areas that border the Eagle Cap wilderness boundary—areas that have been off limits to livestock grazing for several years and have largely recovered from historic grazing related degradation.

HCPC plans on insisting that the Forest Service considers an alternative to opening up these sensitive lands to grazing, which essentially rewards livestock owners for their inability or unwillingness to abide by the terms of their grazing permits and keep their cows out of unauthorized areas.

I see a pattern of these types of actions where the Forest Service isn’t just throwing in the towel when it comes to curbing illegal and unauthorized use of our public lands, but actually goes a step further in the wrong direction by taking actions that in effect reward bad behavior. This scenario frequently arises in the context of illegally created trails by Off-Highway Vehicle users. A bunch of bad apples disregard the law, using their OHVs to create new trails in unauthorized areas, and then the Forest Service proposes to incorporate those illegally created trails into an officially designated OHV trail network. The Sled Springs OHV proposal (litigation pending) (see 12/28/09 blog post) and the Deduct Pond trail link proposal (see 3/09/10 blog post) are two prime examples.

This is not the message we want to see coming from an agency entrusted with managing our forests and enforcing resource protection laws. We intend to continue telling the Forest Service to stop rewarding bad behavior and we urge you to do the same.

Submitted by Jennifer Schwartz, Staff Attorney & Connectivity Campaign Director

Photo: Rob McCrea, summer 2009 Legal Intern, conducting grazing field investigations.