Colville National Forest
A northeast Washington rancher says it’s a “miracle” that the U.S. Forest Service will reconsider taking away the allotment his family has grazed cattle on since 1963.
Steve Fountain of Pend Oreille County said Tuesday that he wasn’t surprised that Colville National Forest Supervisor Rodney Smoldon announced that he was closing the 23,000-acre LeClerc Creek allotment.
Two days later, however, Regional Forester Jim Pena put Smoldon’s decision on hold.
“I call it a miracle,” Fountain said. “I had kind of given up. I’m way more hopeful now. The Forest Service has had me in a squeeze chute, only I’m not a cow, I’m a human.”
The Forest Service has been studying for years whether to close the allotment, where Fountain turns out 101 cow-calf pairs for the summer. The agency acknowledges that Fountain’s management of the herd has improved the ecological condition of the range, but Smoldon said the cattle are incompatible with tribal cultural practices.
The Kalispel Tribe of Indians told the Forest Service that the land was sacred and that cow manure discouraged tribal members from practicing traditional beliefs, curative arts and rites of passage.
In an email to Forest Service employees, Smoldon said closing the allotment will re-establish the “full uses and values of this cherished cultural landscape for the Kalispel Tribe of Indians.”
“This decision honors and respects the federal government’s trust responsibility to the federally recognized Kalispel Tribe of Indians,” Smoldon wrote.
The decision was announced in a legal notice June 26 but rescinded by higher-ups June 29. “We’re taking some additional time to consider the impacts to parties involved. We plan to issue a decision as soon as possible,” a Forest Service spokesman said in an email.
Efforts to reach the tribe were unsuccessful.
The Colville National Forest covers 1.1 million acres in Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties. Some 5,500 cow-calf pairs graze there in the summer. Cattlemen’s groups see the fate of the LeClerc Creek allotment as possibly setting a precedent for other grazing grounds.
“I would say every single grazing allotment could be put at risk,” said Cattle Producers of Washington President Scott Nielsen. “That decision (to end grazing) would have had national implications.”
Cattle have grazed there since at least 1940 and maybe as far back as the 1890s, according to the Forest Service.
The allotment has five pastures. Fountain said he was willing to give up one, making up 24 percent of the allotment. The Forest Service said closing the pasture would respond to tribal needs. “I’ve said all along I’ve been willing to make concessions for cultural concerns,” Fountain said. “I don’t see how we couldn’t figure out a way to share the land.”
The Forest Service released an extensive environmental study on the allotment in April. The study recommended that grazing continue, though with more than $100,000 worth of new fences and water troughs to keep cattle from streams. The Forest Service would pay for the improvements.
The Forest Service, in talks with Fountain, also worked out an alternative plan that would cost about $73,000 in immediate improvements. Both plans are “ridiculously” expensive for taxpayers and unneeded for a range that’s getting in better condition, Fountain said.
With either plan, the grazing permit would be contingent on an “adaptive management strategy” that could cost as much as $500,000 over 10 years and reduce the number of cows allowed on the allotment, according to the study.
Smoldon said the Forest Service will offer Fountain a grazing permit on vacant allotments. Fountain and his family have a long history of grazing in the forest and have worked to minimize the ecological effects of grazing, Smoldon said.
Fountain said that the Forest Service has offered him allotments in a different county. “They’re all in Ferry County. I live in Pend Oreille County. Do you want me to move?” he asked. “We also have a spiritual interest here.”