Ranchers fear push to designate scorched land as wilderness areas
By DAN WHEAT
It's been a tough summer for ranchers in southeastern Oregon and northern Nevada. Three wildfires devastated nearly 1.2 million acres, much of it government grazing allotments, and killed cattle.
At the 12-Mile Ranch, owners Richard and Jeanette Yturriondobeitia lost half of their herd of 300 cattle to the Long Draw Fire. They and other ranchers in the area have had to buy hay or find other sources of feed for the cattle that remain.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management said it may allow grazing next year of some unburned allotments but it likely will be two years before cattle are allowed on the areas that burned.
Seven or eight ranches are in "heavy trouble," said Bob Skinner, a Jordan Valley rancher and past president of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association.
"They are still foundering, trying to find pasture and hold things together," Skinner said. "It takes time for them to know how long they can hang on."
The wildfires, and the uncertainty they leave in their wake, mark a turning point for ranchers of the Trout Creek Mountains. They say they sacrificed for two decades to rebuild the grazing allotments, only to watch them go up in flames. And pervasive talk of imposing wilderness designations on some of the area has them worried about how serious BLM managers are about helping them get back on their feet.
One of the region's iconic ranches -- the Whitehorse Ranch -- was sold before lightning touched off the Holloway Fire on Aug. 5. For 13 days, the fire raced across 461,047 acres of the Trout Creek Mountains and much of the ranch's spring and summer grazing allotments.
David Herman sold the 63,222-acre ranch for $10.8 million on July 18, according to the assessor offices of Harney and Malheur counties. Some 287,205 acres of federal grazing rights are tied to the ranch. The buyer, BTAZ Nevada, paid an additional sum for cattle and equipment, Herman said.
BTAZ Nevada, which is headquartered in Nebraska, declined requests for interviews. BTAZ is a family ranching and cattle feeding operation "not looking for a lot of publicity," said Clyde Magnuson, BTAZ's new Whitehorse manager.
Herman, who operated a cow-calf operation of 800 mother cows, said BTAZ is switching to raising yearlings and has moved in several thousand of them. Lisa Quincy, a BTAZ representative, did not respond when asked about the plans.
Herman said he sold the ranch because of BLM grazing restrictions. It would have been even harder, he said, with loss of grazing to the fire. The 556,330-acre Long Draw Fire burned some of the ranch's grazing allotment.
He also believes the BLM did not aggressively fight the fire because it wants the Trout Creek Mountains to be designated wilderness.
Other ranchers suspect that, too, Skinner said.
While the BLM has long been monitoring parts of the Trout Creek Mountains for wilderness characteristics, it is not trying to designate wilderness there and did not let the fire burn to help create wilderness, said Mark Wilkening, a BLM spokesman in Vale, Ore.
The area is under general rangeland management that allows restricted grazing even in wilderness study areas, he said. New roads can't be built and vehicles can't be used off-road in study areas, he said.
In December 2010, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ordered the BLM to look for, designate and manage areas as wild lands. Salazar backed down the next year in the face of congressional opposition and the threat of a lawsuit from Utah.
In August 2012, Rep. Rob Bishop and Sen. Orrin Hatch, both Utah Republicans, discovered BLM manuals referring to a wild lands policy and giving BLM authority to identify "roadless islands of public lands, even under 5,000 acres, as possessing wilderness characteristics."
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and chair of the Senate Western Caucus, and 18 caucus members sent a letter of opposition to Salazar.
In a Sept. 11 response, Salazar wrote the wild lands policy has not been reinstated and that the manuals Bishop and Hatch referred to guide the BLM on conducting wilderness characteristic inventories under existing law.
The manuals do not presume lands with wilderness characteristics will be prioritized over other resources, do not establish a wild lands designation or other management designation, and do not require creation of a national database of lands with wilderness characteristics, Salazar wrote.
Complaints with BLM
For the past 20 years, ranchers with grazing allotments in the Trout Creek Mountains have scaled back their high-country grazing under an agreement with the BLM and environmentalists.
Fish, wildlife and habitat were restored while the number of cattle and amount of grazing were significantly reduced. Now ranchers say they want a change in a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biological opinion to allow more grazing.
The ranchers asked for those changes at the annual meeting of the Trout Creek Mountain Working Group in McDermitt, Nev., on Sept. 5. But the request was put on hold because of the devastation of the fires. The more immediate need is rehabilitation from the fires and determining if winter rains will be enough to allow grazing of cheatgrass next year, said Steve Maher, owner of Maher Ranch. About 75 percent of his grazing allotment was burned in the Long Draw Fire.
Herman said Bill Reimers, a BLM range conservationist, ordered ranchers to accelerate pasture rotations this spring to decrease the amount of time cattle could graze in the high country and then "threatened me about overgrazing the green line adjacent to creek banks."
Analysis of grazing is supposed to be done on representative data plots within an allotment, not just smaller "green lines" near creeks, Herman said. But Reimers went solely by the green line with no change in the rules, which was surprising, Herman said.
"When I asked him to articulate a specific standard that we had allegedly violated, he could not," Herman said. "All he could do was say that in his opinion we had overgrazed a micro area within a pasture ... and, based on that, declare the entire pasture overgrazed."
Reimers did not return Capital Press phone calls. He denied Herman's comments, Wilkening said.
Less grazing left a bigger fuel load for the fires, Herman said. Combined with mismanagement of fires and statements by a BLM range conservationist and a firefighter, it shows an intent to create wilderness, Herman said.
The BLM missed an opportunity to extinguish the north flank of the Holloway Fire at midnight Aug. 8 when it was low and burning slowly about 12 miles west of Whitehorse Ranch, Herman said.
When fire crews did swing into action they spent precious time on "worthless activity" including building a fire break with a bulldozer to protect a power line that was already protected by the parallel county road, Herman said. They made a fire break to protect an irrigation pivot already protected by a road, he said.
Asked about that, Wilkening said the BLM does not comment on specific firefighting tactics.
Herman said a firefighter told him that she overheard a fire incident commander say to let everything burn until the wilderness is done burning.
BLM Range Conservationist Marcy Egger "told me six months ago that they were looking to get us designated as wilderness," he said.
Egger did not return a Capital Press call. She denied telling Herman the BLM wants to designate the Trout Creek Mountains as wilderness, Wilkening said.
Chris Hansen, Owyhee wilderness coordinator of Oregon Natural Desert Association in Bend, Ore., said his group believes about 200,000 acres of the Trout Creek Mountains area should be designated by Congress as wilderness to protect land and wildlife. Cattle grazing would continue relatively unchanged and actually be more protected than it is now, as a grandfathered use, he said.
"A lot of uses go away. You can't use a motor vehicle to go in and fix fences or put out salt licks," he said. "Sometimes permission is gained to do that and then it doesn't sit well with the public because ranchers can motor in and the public can't."
Historically, when grazing areas are designated wilderness, layers of land-use regulations follow and make it unworkable, he said, citing the Owyhee River and Cascade Siskiyous as examples.