Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Lawsuit Seeks to Protect Thousands of Acres of Public Lands and Waters from Forest Service's Inadequate Environmental Review of Livestock Grazing

The Hells Canyon Preservation Council and the Oregon Natural Desert Association recently filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging several Forest Service livestock grazing permit renewals on three National Forests in eastern Oregon. The Wallowa-Whitman, Umatilla and Malheur National Forests have together reauthorized livestock grazing on well over a quarter million acres of our public lands without thoroughly assessing or disclosing to the public the impacts of these actions on the region's natural resources.

Instead, the Forest Service has elected to forego any thorough environmental assessments or meaningful public participation, issuing numerous "categorical exclusions" across eastern Oregon and throughout the entire American West. An appropriations “rider” passed by Congress in 2005 and extended in 2008, allowed the Forest Service to categorically exclude grazing reauthorizations in fiscal years 2005 through 2008 from documentation under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), if the agency was able to demonstrate with monitoring data that current grazing management is meeting resource standards (standards designed to ensure ecosystem health, protect native species, and prevent overgrazing). Categorical exclusions are also disallowed if grazing might negatively affect certain special resources like threatened and endangered species; flood plains, wetlands, or municipal watersheds; congressionally designated areas, such as wilderness or national recreation areas; and cultural or archeological sites.

The Forest Service has repeatedly misapplied this grazing rider across these three forests. Although grazing has occurred on these public lands allotments for decades, in most cases the Forest Service has never prepared any environmental analyses under NEPA, despite the presence of imperiled plants, threatened salmon and steelhead, degraded streams, sensitive and unique habitats, cultural and archeological sites, and areas designated by Congress for special resource protection, such as the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area and the Imnaha and John Day Wild & Scenic Rivers. Because the agency has failed to adequately monitor these areas and the resources they contain, it cannot show that protective standards are being met and that grazing does not pose any serious threats.

When inappropriately managed, livestock grazing adversely impacts ecological communities, particularly sensitive streamside areas, meadows, sagebrush ecosystems, aspen stands, and native grasses and forbs, all of which are critically important habitat for fish and wildlife. Livestock can trample and eat vegetation, spread noxious weeds, compact soils, erode streambanks and impair water quality. When livestock are allowed to degrade this habitat, it threatens the ecological functioning or survival of many fish, wildlife and plant species.

This action aims to ensure the Forest Service takes a hard look at the impacts of grazing on thousands of acres of public lands and waters, imperiled species, and countless other natural resources of eastern Oregon and gives the public a meaningful opportunity to participate in the decisions affecting our natural heritage.

Jennifer Schwartz, Staff Attorney

Photo: Juniper Flat pasture, Alder Springs allotment on the Whitman Ranger District, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest (this allotment was among those categorically excluded from thorough environmental review and challenged in this lawsuit).

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