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.