POCATELLO, Idaho — Larry Fitch expects he’ll have to make some changes regarding how he grazes public land to satisfy demands of forest users and officials, and it won’t be cheap.
Fitch and his son Todd run nearly 500 cows in the Midnight and Pocatello allotments of the Caribou National Forest near Pocatello. The two allotments, as well as the nearby Michaud allotment, are used by about half a dozen ranchers and are undergoing an unusually rigorous U.S. Forest Service review.
The Forest Service, which seeks to re-evaluate its leases every decade, hadn’t looked at the three allotments since 1992. Unlike with most reauthorizations, the Forest Service is conducting a full National Environmental Policy Act assessment due to issues with water quality and recreational conflicts, explained Westside Ranger District Ranger Jeff Hammes.
Public comments may be submitted through Jan. 30 to firstname.lastname@example.org. Hammes hopes to release a draft environmental impact statement outlining potential changes by June, with a final EIS planned for December.
The Forest Service’s proposed action is to reauthorize grazing at the same intensity, but with some “minor changes” to protect riparian areas and bring certain streams back into compliance with water-quality standards, Hammes said. He said future management may emphasize moving cattle through certain terrain “a little more rapidly.” A no-grazing alternative is also under consideration.
Due to the heavy and varied use of the public land, Hammes explained he took the unique step of creating a working group with several stakeholders, assembled by the Bannock County Commission.
“I think it’s been very beneficial, and a lot of things came out right upfront that maybe we would not have heard for a long time,” Hammes said.
Hannah Sanger, Pocatello’s science and environment division manager, represented the city, which has Mink Creek water rights, advocating for riparian protections.
“We want to make sure those are protected, and the water quality on all of the streams meets Clean Water Act standards,” Sanger said.
Clark Collins, who attended on behalf of off-highway vehicle enthusiasts with the Blue Ribbon Coalition, suggested fencing and cattle guards to keep cattle out of popular primitive forest campsites.
Jon Marvel, with Western Watersheds Project, declined to participate in the working group but has submitted comments and data to the Forest Service, including Mink Creek water samples he commissioned showing elevated bacteria and sediment levels attributed to grazing.
“It’s ridiculous when four ranchers can pollute the water that the whole city is dependent on for drinking water,” said Marvel, who has pushed to close the allotments.
City leaders stress they stopped using Mink Creek surface water for culinary purposes in 1993 and now irrigate with it.
Fitch insists his ranch would fail without public land access. To better represent their position during the meetings, the ranchers hired retired Idaho Farm Bureau Federation range expert Wally Butler to sit in with them.
On the whole, Fitch believes the meetings, which started about a year ago, were productive, and suggestions, such as moving water troughs away from riparian and heavily used recreation areas, were fairly reasonable.
“We’re willing to do it to an extent,” Fitch said. “I think there’s no way in the world you’re going to please the Watershed people.”