Colville National Forest

Cattle graze in the Colville National Forest in northeast Washington. The Trump administration has revamped the National Environmental Policy Act, which regulates activities on federal land.

Northeast Washington cattlemen likely will object to a plan released Sept. 7 that will guide the management of the 1.1 million-acre Colville National Forest, an industry leader said.

Ranchers who graze cattle in the forest shouldn’t see much change from a plan that’s been in place since 1988, according to the Forest Service. Cattlemen, however, are concerned about new guidelines for maintaining the height of grass and a recommendation to designate more acres as wilderness.

“There will be fewer cattle grazing in the forest if it’s implemented as written,” Cattle Producers of Washington President Scott Nielsen said. “It will be because the rancher won’t be able to stay within the standards and guidelines.”

The plan has been 14 years in the making and still needs to go through a 60-day comment period before becoming final. The document will guide forest managers on day-to-day decisions on such activities as timber harvests, prescribed burns, trail building and cattle grazing.

Annually, the forest supports up to 29,500 animal-unit months, the amount of forage a cow and calf eat in a month. The plan does not specify how many cattle will graze in the forest, though the Forest Service says it anticipates grazing will remain at current levels. Grazing terms will continue to be set allotment by allotment, according to the plan.

“There may be a need in the future to improve livestock distribution on allotments, but that has always been the case when managing large landscapes for grazing,” forest spokesman Franklin Pemberton wrote in an email Monday. “Grazing on the Colville National Forest under the revised plan should be very similar to grazing management under the existing 1988 plan.”

The plan recommends that Congress designate 61,700 acres as wilderness. The forest currently has 31,400 acres designated as wilderness. If Congress adopts the new designations, grazing can continue, according to the Forest Service. Ranchers argue that marking off land that could be designated wilderness will affect maintenance of fences and water troughs, and managing cattle.

Commissioners in Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties asked the Forest Service to not recommend more wilderness areas. Some environmental groups advocated for up to 222,000 acres be recommended as wilderness.

“The bottom line is that maintenance of range improvements is allowed in recommended Wilderness and Wilderness,” Pemberton said.

While the management plan does not set grazing levels, it does set forth how the Forest Service will judge whether grazing fits in with helping endangered wildlife, and improving riparian vegetation and water quality.

The guidelines will “provide more current, consistent and objective grazing management,” according to the Forest Service’s summary of the plan.

Cattlemen’s groups argue that the plan’s guidelines for grass stubble height are unrealistic and unneeded, and will lead to shorter grazing seasons and fewer cows on the range.

“I don’t think there’s anything better about this plan for the cattlemen,” Nielsen said. “It sure doesn’t fit with the national direction: You’ll do no harm to agriculture.”

The recommended stubble height will be 4 to 6 inches in some riparian areas, according to the plan. “This is a substantial change from the earlier draft of the Revised Forest Plan that listed a minimum of 6 to 8 inches of stubble height being maintained adjacent to all watercourses,” according to Pemberton.

The Forest Service says the plan will increase logging. Timber harvests will support 537 jobs, up from 330, according to the agency. The plan carries forward a 2001 rule that designated 182,000 acres as inventoried roadless areas, where logging and motorized vehicles are prohibited. Some 95 percent of the recommended wilderness acres are in roadless areas.

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