Washington group shares grazing concerns with Forest Service chief

Vicki Christiansen, interim chief of the U.S. Forest Service, listens Aug. 2 to Colville National Forest users during a tri-county forest working group meeting in Colville, Wash. U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., listens at left.

COLVILLE, Wash. — Forest users in northeast Washington met last week with interim chief U.S. Forest Service chief Vicki Christiansen to discuss their concerns. Chief among them was grazing on national forest allotments.

Stevens County Commissioner Steve Parker said the meeting was to build on the relationship between county elected officials, forest users and Colville National Forest staff.

“There are some old ways of doing business that I don’t think we need to go back to,” Parker said. “This group, as well as your Colville staff, can have the freedom to make local decisions that are vetted, lawful and effective.”

In addition to grazing, speakers addressed motorized and non-motorized recreation and conservation.

Scott Nielsen, president of the Cattle Producers of Washington and vice president of Stevens County Cattlemen, said ranchers rely on the forest to graze their livestock.

“For many of our area ranchers, Forest Service allotments are crucial to their livelihoods and their entire operation hinges on summer grazing provided by the allotments,” Nielsen said. “Like the timber industry, the economic contribution from our ranches is crucial to the economy of our region.”

Since the last Colville National Forest plan was approved in 1988, the average number of permitted animal unit months on the forest has declined from 35,000 to 29,500 per year, Nielsen said.

The proposed revision to the plan includes region-wide riparian management standards that would be “devastating” to ranchers, Nielsen said.

The proposed standards were presented by a student in a master’s thesis that was rejected for publication in a scientific journal because of flawed science, Nielsen said. The draft of the plan cites the thesis as best available science, he said, adding that the Forest Service’s riparian expert says the proposed standards are not warranted and should be questioned.

Nielsen cited instances where the Forest Service was listening to recreation experts to build on opportunities, and suggested the agency work with people with grazing expertise.

Parker also asked Christiansen about the possibility of building a relationship with the Forest Service on a regional level in Portland. In the past, regional relations haven’t always been smooth, he said.

“I don’t want to feel like a country bumpkin just because my boots don’t fit the Portland pavement as well as they could,” he said.

Christiansen hopes to have a new regional forester in place by mid-September.

“I hear you about wanting to be in a relationship at the different levels of the Forest Service, and I can assure you ... the expectations of the leadership position will articulate just that,” she said.

Christiansen told the group its input was helpful, and she heard their grazing and recreation concerns. She anticipates a “stabilized” funding environment in 2020 to help address the other interests that have gotten shorted in addressing fire concerns, she said.

“It’s only with innovation from folks like you and your community that we’re going to be able to solve some of these difficult choices, trade-offs, where we put our investments and how we increase capacity,” she said. “You’re thinking about an economy for the place that you live and breathe, and we need to say, ‘How can we help support that?’”

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