Friday, February 11, 2011

HCPC's Grazing Appeal Results in Protection for Pristine, Backcountry Meadows and Critical Fish Habitat

Of course there is always a high degree of subjectivity when discussing our favorite backcountry spots. For anyone who's been though, I'd bet West Eagle Meadows, which funnels into a meandering trail that follows West Eagle Creek, into the Eagle Cap wilderness, and up to pristine, alpine lakes, ranks high among their picks for exploring the Wallowas.

It certainly lies atop HCPC's list of recommendations for enjoying this area. But even more important to our organizational mission, is the fact that this meadow system and stream provide critically important habitat for rare and declining native fish and wildlife. Streamside areas, typically referred to by scientists as "riparian zones" or "riparian communities" are among the most productive habitats in the American West. Of the wildlife species that occur in Oregon and Washington, 70% utilize riparian zones as habitat (Kauffman et al. 2001). Considering that riparian zones and wetlands only cover 1–2% of western forest and rangeland landscapes, their value associated with biological diversity cannot be understated (Kauffman and Krueger 1984).

Wet meadows and streams are also extremely vulnerable to the negative effects of livestock grazing. Several scientific reviews have summarized the detrimental effects of livestock grazing on riparian habitats and their wildlife. (Fleischner 2010, citing: Platts 1979, 1981; Kauffman & Krneger 1984; Fleischner 1994; Ohmart 1996; Belsky etat 1999). For instance, livestock grazing has been identified as a principal factor contributing to the decline of native fish species in the West. Cattle impair essential habitat features for sensitive fish like redband, steelhead and bull trout--cold, clean, complex and connected habitat--by removing vegetative cover, damaging overhanging streambanks and reducing streamside pools used for spawning and rearing. Loss of vegetative cover and trampled streambanks also in turn lead to increased water temperatures that further impair the ability of sensitive fish to carry out their life cycles.

HCPC's mission to protect these critical riparian zones and our interest in preserving pristine, backcountry recreational areas from being spoiled by signs of livestock grazing (such as all the massive piles of excrement cattle leave behind) is why we filed an administrative appeal challenging the Forest Service's Eastside Grazing Allotment Management Plans proposal. This proposal initially called for expanding 4 grazing allotment boundaries up to the Eagle Cap wilderness boundary. This proposed expansion would have resulted in the authorization of grazing within West Eagle Meadows, exposing approximately 2 more accessible stream miles that are now federally designated critical fish habitat to detrimental livestock impacts.

The filing of an administrative appeal—a prerequisite in most cases to pursuing a lawsuit in federal court—triggers the initiation of an appeal resolution process. In many situations, this informal negotiation process does not end with the agency agreeing to modify its proposal in a way that adequately protects the resources HCPC advocates on behalf of. When an appeal resolution can't be reached, the administrative appeal is submitted to an "Appeal Deciding Officer" within the Forest Service. On rare occasions the Appeal Deciding Officer may decide to withdraw a project, but in our experience that official generally approves the implementation of the project without any changes. It's this latter scenario that leaves HCPC with the option of taking its challenge before a federal court judge for resolution.

In regards to the Eastside Grazing proposal, HCPC was able to use the appeal resolution process to negotiate substantive changes to the project and avoid another Hells Canyon Preservation Council v. U.S. Forest Service lawsuit. As a result of our efforts, there will be:

NO grazing allowed in West Eagle Meadows!!! The entire meadow system will be officially excluded from the allotment boundary.

The grazing permits issued will also contain explicit language identifying the consequences of chronic unauthorized use (3 or more instances where cattle drift into areas closed to grazing during the grazing season). In response to chronic unauthorized use, the Forest Service has agreed to initiate remedial action (e.g. removal of problem livestock from the allotment, construct additional exclosure fencing, or close adjacent pasture areas to livestock grazing).

If you care as much about West Eagle Meadows and other crucial fish habitat and pristine, backcountry areas as HCPC, then contact us to find out how you can become a volunteer ground-truther and monitor these special places during late spring, summer, and early fall!

Photos: (top right) West Eagle Creek trail, Eagle Cap wilderness; (bottom left) West Eagle Meadows

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