In early April, Idaho Rep. Helen Chenoweth ordered Levere, the manager of the central Idaho forest, to come to the nation's capitol and defend his tough new penalties for ranchers who violate their grazing permits. In March, ranchers had begun grumbling about Levere's new "two strikes and you're out" policy, which could suspend grazing permits after two violations. Their complaints got them the attention of Chenoweth, a staunch defender of public land grazing.
But before the hearing began, Levere gave notice that he would not be easily bullied.
"If that's (the hearing) supposed to make me back down, I've got news for people," he said. "I'm not begging for forgiveness."
Under the glare of the spotlight, Levere listened to Chenoweth describe his new rules as nothing more than a veiled attempt to kick all livestock grazers off national forests. He heard Idaho Rep. Mike Crapo, R, describe his regulations as a form of rancher intimidation. The rules are "too rigid, too extreme and make no allowances for involuntary or accidental violations," said Crapo.
Levere responded by holding up pictures of overgrazed streams on the Sawtooth. "Is this what you want your national forest to look like?" he asked the panel of lawmakers.
Levere said his steadfastness comes from experience. Over the past several years, some ranchers have refused to comply with the terms of their grazing permits. In 1996, for instance, the Forest Service took action against 24 public-land ranchers. Their permit violations ranged from the improper placement of salt blocks, which encourage cattle to graze in sensitive riparian areas, to insufficient fencing.
In Levere's view, the agency wasted time and money dogging the heels of those permittees who refused to cooperate with the agency. "We've been seeing an ever-widening gap in our relationships with the permittees," he said.
In March, Levere ordered his rangers to abandon the old enforcement system, which gave permittees up to five warnings about violations, and to start notifying ranchers that part or all of their permits would be suspended if they didn't immediately change their ways.
The new rules offered ranchers a way out: By accepting an invitation to negotiate a remedy to the violation, a rancher could avoid penalties altogether. But those who refused to negotiate would find themselves locked out of the 2 million-acre Sawtooth, 80 percent of which is open to livestock grazing.
Levere said he hoped the new rules would encourage a more constructive dialogue with permittees. So far, he has begun an intense dialogue with Idaho's congressional delegation and received criticism from local ranchers.
"He came to the table and laid a club down on the table and said, "Let's negotiate," " said Larry Ragains, president of the Idaho Cattleman's Association. "It scared us to death."
Still, Levere has his supporters, At the April hearing, Linn Kincannon of the Idaho Conservation League told Chenoweth's forest subcommittee that the new regulations were "a good place to start," she said. "I'm afraid this hearing is another attempt by the livestock industry to prevent change."
Levere said after the hearing he intends to proceed with his new rules, with one capitulation to congressional furor - a 30-day public comment period. That idea placated Chenoweth somewhat, but Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, R, has asked Levere to withdraw the new plan and start over. Levere said he will review the comments, but at this time has no intention of backing down.
Rep. Helen Chenoweth can be reached at 1719 LHOB, Washington, DC 20515-1201 (202/225-6611). Supervisor Bill Levere can be reached at Sawtooth National Forest, 2647 Kimberley Road E., Twin Falls, ID 83301 (208/737-3216.
* Shea Andersen
The writer works for the Idaho Mountain Express.