Colville grazing objections

Cows graze in the Colville National Forest in northeast Washington. A new final rule will allow the U.S. Forest Service to finish environmental analyses of allotments faster than before.

An environmentalist lawsuit alleges that grazing should stop in Washington’s Colville National Forest until the U.S. Forest Service re-analyzes its environmental impacts.

The Lands Council, Western Watersheds Project and Kettle Range Conservation Group allege the agency’s 2019 management plan for the 1 million-acre forest violates federal environmental laws.

If the environmental plaintiffs are successful in obtaining an injunction against grazing, the effect would be highly detrimental to ranchers in the region who depend on public lands for seasonal pasture, said Ted Wishon, a rancher and board member of the Stevens County Cattlemen’s Association.

“You take that many cattle off summer grazing in Northeast Washington, there’s nowhere else to put them,” Wishon said.

The lack of available forage would “break” some cattle producers while creating a “war” of competition for private grazing ground among remaining ranchers, which would then degrade the quality of that pasture, he said.

According to the environmental plaintiffs, livestock grazing in Colville National Forest has significantly harmed fish habitat, water quality and riparian areas.

“It has widened stream channels, reduced stream shade, destroyed overhanging banks, elevated erosion and consequently increased sedimentation, compacted soils, and exacerbated seasonal water temperature extremes in streams,” the complaint said.

Despite these impacts, the Forest Service’s most recent forest plan doesn’t make any changes to grazing policy and permits the same number of livestock to graze the same allotments at the same intensity, according to the plaintiffs.

“In the Final Plan Documents, the Forest Service determined that only 31% of the land within current cattle grazing allotments is capable and suitable for cattle grazing,” the complaint said. “Yet the Final Plan Documents do not make any adjustments based on these determinations. The 2019 Plan does not restrict grazing to the capable and suitable land, make any adjustments to the areas on which it will authorize grazing, or change the amount, intensity or duration of grazing.”

The environmental plaintiffs have asked a federal judge to declare the 2019 forest plan unlawful and order the Forest Service to revise it to comply with the National Forest Management Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.

The plaintiffs also seek an injunction to prohibit the agency from “continuing to authorize grazing on the Colville Forest allotments” until those revisions are complete.

Rodney Smoldon, the forest’s supervisor, said that “due to ongoing litigation we are unable to make any official statement at this time.”

In the management plan for the forest, the Forest Service said livestock grazing is “an important part of the economy in northeastern Washington” that contributes to nearly 100 jobs with a collective annual income of about $1.5 million.

The 2019 forest plan includes new riparian vegetation guidelines that will “provide more current, consistent, and objective grazing management across the Forest based on the best available science,” which will improve watershed health while “ensuring continued, viable livestock use,” the agency said.

Wishon of the Stevens County Cattlemen’s Association said portions of the national forest are “tough country” but that grazing largely self-regulates based on where ranchers can find satisfactory forage.

“If it’s not suitable, it will naturally be forfeited,” Wishon said.

I've been working at Capital Press since 2006 and I primarily cover legislative, regulatory and legal issues.

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