Ranchers in northeast Washington have identified what they call a "fatal flaw" in the Forest Service's plan to manage the Colville National Forest: No one can be expected to understand it.
The plan and supporting documents run thousands of pages, notes Chance Gowan, a consultant for the Stevens County Cattlemen's Association. He says he's dedicated well over 40 hours studying the materials and "sadly" reports being sure he's missed something harmful to cattlemen.
"It is a monstrosity, and why is that necessary?" asked Steven County rancher Scott Nielsen, a member of the county association and president of the Cattle Producers of Washington. "It's a lot of what concerns and scares us. Why can't they just say, 'Grazing can continue in the forest'?"
The cattlemen's association and about two dozen other organizations, including many environmental groups, have formally objected to the Forest Service's long-range plan to manage 1.1 million acres in Stevens, Ferry and Pend Oreille counties. The plan, released in September, will provide "overall guidance" for how cattlemen can use the forest's 58 grazing allotments.
The plan also will affect logging, mining and recreation.
The plan recommends that Congress designate 61,700 acres as wilderness. The Forest Service says grazing will continue at current levels. Stevens County cattlemen and the Washington Cattlemen's Association, however, say restrictions on new roads and power tools could make grazing impractical. Both groups also are concerned that new grass-height standards near water would reduce the number of cattle on the land and shorten grazing seasons.
Before getting to all that, Gowan's written comments to the Forest Service criticized the plan's volume and organization.
References to grazing and other activities are woven throughout the 38-page draft record of decision, 236-page management plan and 1,496-page environmental impact statement. Supporting documents include 527 pages from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on endangered species and 263 pages from the Forest Service assessing the plan's biological affects.
Gowan argued that the material was too complex and cumbersome, and practically speaking failed to give the public the chance to comment. "We assert that this plan, as written does not offer that opportunity," he wrote.
Colville National Forest spokesman Franklin Pemberton agreed there is a lot of material to absorb, but the forest covers a lot of ground.
"It's a plan for 1.1 million acres, with the scientific references and all the working documents, it has to be that long. There are other folks who say we haven't done enough analysis," he said. "It's a big document for sure, but the record of decision (38 pages) is the important piece."
The period to object to the plan ended Nov. 6. The Forest Service says it will hold public meetings to try to resolve the objections before finalizing the plan.
Environmental groups object that the plan doesn't explicitly reduce livestock grazing. They also wanted forest managers to recommend more acres be designated as wilderness.
County commissioners in Stevens, Ferry and Pend Oreille counties asked the Forest Service to recommend no new wilderness areas. The Northeast Washington Forest Coalition, a coalition of conservation groups and private businesses, said the Forest Service paid too much attention to county commissioners and accused the federal agency of caving into a "small special-interest group."
"While it is true locals tend to know the land they live, hike and work on a regular basis, locals are far more likely to have a personal, financial interest in what happens on that land. These sorts of conflicts of interest are an unavoidable part of life in small, rural communities and should have no bearing (on) federal land management issue," according to the coalition's written objection.