Rancher stonewalls an agency

  The condition of a grazing allotment in southern Wyoming is at the center of a dispute between the National Wildlife Federation and the Bureau of Land Management.

The wildlife group's attorney, Tom Lustig, is protesting the agency's temporary extension of a grazing permit to rancher Wright Dickenson. Lustig says the impact of 1,000 cows on the 227,000-acre Pine Mountain Allotment is severe and has never been seriously analyzed.

"BLM admits what was going on and how discouraged the agency was," Lustig says. "Back in the early 1990s, BLM was saying, "This place is a mess." They made some efforts to change the management but couldn't get the permittee to agree and lacked the backbone to do it themselves."

In one of a series of seesawing administrative decisions this spring, BLM officials in Rock Springs, Wyo., told Dickenson that his 10-year grazing lease could not be extended when it ended May 1. Cows were immediately ordered off. Then on May 5, the BLM reversed itself and proposed an extension of grazing privileges that would last until next March. After unsuccessfully protesting that plan, Lustig said he is considering filing suit in federal court.

In his protest, Lustig argued that the rancher had refused to cooperate with the agency. According to Lustig, Wright Dickenson, at a meeting in 1994, told the BLM: "We can work together, but if you (the BLM) just want to regulate, it won't work. Some areas aren't pretty, and we're not proud of them. But we're not going to lay down and just let you run over us. We've got a stubborn streak a mile long."

BLM documents show that in 1997, agency officials allowed Dickenson to hire his own range consultant - Ranges West Consulting of Idaho - to draw up an allotment management plan for BLM approval.

Lustig blasts the resulting 1998 plan as "little more than facade," prepared by a private consultant to tell the rancher what he is "willing to accept."

In issuing the 10-month temporary permit to Dickenson, BLM legal experts cited the federal Administrative Procedures Act. It provides that when a licensee "has made timely and sufficient application for a renewal in accordance with agency rules, a license with reference to an activity of a continuing nature does not expire until the application has been finally determined by the agency."

If Lustig objects to the permit in federal court, he says he will cite the precedent-setting Comb Wash, Utah, decision (HCN, 1/24/94). In that case, Lustig said, the Interior Board of Land Appeals affirmed that "you have to focus on site-specific impacts when you put cows on public land." Lustig says that means "it gets down to a spring or a little canyon that is important to people and wildlife."

A Rock Springs, Wyo., resident, Craig Thompson, who owns a cabin on five acres within the Pine Mountain allotment, says for years he has talked to the BLM about problems resulting from overgrazing. "I'm the shrill peasant," he says.

"It's been awfully discouraging," he adds, "because land stewards aren't doing their job. Everyone resents my involvement except the range scientists on the ground, which gives me some encouragement ... When you have scientifically documented evidence of resource damage, there has to be a plan to clean it up."

T. Wright Dickenson, Wright Dickenson's son and a Moffat County, Colo., commissioner, said his family will have no comment on its management of the public land or the legal battles it faces. BLM officials also declined to comment.

* Katharine Collins