Conservationists, ranchers united in balancing forest use

By MATTHEW WEAVER

Capital Press

SPOKANE, Wash. -- A proposed initiative is bringing ranchers and conservationists together for the benefit of forestland in northeast Washington.

The nonprofit organization Conservation Northwest announced July 28 a new Columbia Highlands Initiative, which proponents say balances recreational, environmental and agricultural uses as they work to have new wilderness areas designated in the Colville National Forest.

Designation of wilderness areas requires an act of Congress.

Initiative director Timothy Coleman said work with ranchers in the area has included assistance in getting conservation easements, payment for the assessment of their property and offering to work with the federal government to oversee grazing allotments.

The organization recently submitted an application to the Forest Legacy program on behalf of Ferry County ranchers Bryan and Debra Gotham in hopes of winning a federal grant to keep their property a working ranch and tree farm indefinitely, according to the organization's documents.

Coleman said ranches provide important wildlife habitat and are an important part of the culture.

The initiative's efforts also include promotion of legislation to support family farms and ranches.

"There is a problem with the law in terms of defrauding the private rancher of fair prices for the beef they produce," Coleman said. "They can't make it because the markets are controlled by the packers."

Coleman expects congressional movement on the initiative by early next year.

John Dawson, a Colville, Wash., rancher for more than 40 years, said the initiative would impact his operation, south of the Abercrombie-Hooknose roadless area in the Colville National Forest.

There would be some adverse effect, Dawson said, but he has no objection to that portion of the forest becoming part of a wilderness area. The other aspects of the forest do not affect his operation, but he declined to comment on behalf of other ranchers.

The conservation organizations are working to help ranchers stay in business, which Dawson sees as a positive move.

"One of the main issues that is facing the ranching industry today is to be able to keep the rancher profitable and in business," Dawson said.

The initiative allows Dawson to continue his ranching operation financially, providing income he would otherwise only receive by subdividing the ranch and selling it off in parcels, he said.

"I think everybody realizes the importance of keeping these ranches and land in open space," he said. "I think it's a good thing we're cooperating and working together."

Russ Vaagen, vice president of Vaagen Brothers Lumber, which operates a stud mill in Usk, Wash., said the initiative is unique because it talks about active forest management, grazing and restoration as it talks about wilderness and national conservation and recreation areas.

"This has the opportunity to take care of a lot of things that have been challenges for the grazers and cattlemen," he said.

"If there's ways to find common ground between conservation and the cattlemen, there's an opportunity for them to work together," he said.

"The pump is primed for those discussions to take place."

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