A federal judge will soon decide whether the Forest Service must do analyses for 150 allotments where ranchers run livestock on the Beaverhead National Forest.
Last March, the National Wildlife Federation and its Montana affiliate sued the Forest Service for failing to assess the impacts of grazing on the forest as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (HCN, 5/16/94). Recently, the wildlife groups and the agency negotiated a settlement to the suit and presented it to Judge Paul Hatfield.
The proposed agreement gives the Forest Service 10 years to complete environmental analyses for the allotments, and to set new permit conditions for the ranchers who use them. If the agency fails to meet the year-to-year deadlines for particular allotments, it agrees not to reissue permits to the ranchers. That would force ranchers to remove their cows and sheep from the forest until the analysis is complete.
If approved, the settlement could serve as a model for the Forest Service in the West, says Tom France, an attorney for the National Wildlife Federation. Thousands of Forest Service grazing permits are due to expire at the end of the year, and the agency is scrambling to complete the environmental documents required by NEPA.
"The Forest Service is massively out of compliance with the law," says France. "This agreement gives it an additional 10 years to do the job right."
It also gives ranchers a strong incentive to press the Forest Servce to finish the environmental assessments on time, he says.
Ranchers see it differently.
"The only party hurt in this agreement is the rancher," says Jim Peterson, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association. "It's extremely unfair and unjust to punish the permittee if the Forest Service can't meet its legal obligations."
Peterson's group, along with other ranchers, intervened in the case and entered seven months of negotiations with the Forest Service and environmentalists. They formally objected to the proposed settlement earlier this month and asked Judge Hatfield to reject it. No date has been set for Hatfield's ruling on the settlement.
A race against time
For decades, the Forest Service has maintained that livestock grazing causes relatively little harm to the environment and falls outside NEPA's requirements. But a Salt Lake City administrative judge blasted a hole through that reasoning last year. Judge John Rampton ruled that the Bureau of Land Management failed to consider the environmental impact of cattle grazing and whether cattle grazing is in the best public interest when it issued a permit for the Comb Wash allotment, southwest of Blanding, Utah (HCN, 1/24/94).
Although that ruling dealt specifically with BLM lands, Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas has apparently taken it, and the Beaverhead lawsuit, to heart. On Nov. 22, he told regional foresters that he expects them to complete environmental assessments for the approximately 4,400 grazing permits due to expire around the West in December 1995. Both ranchers and environmentalists question whether the agency has the resources or the will to do so.
Forest Service spokeswoman Pamela Finney says although her agency has earmarked extra money and resources to do NEPA grazing work this year, the new Congress is already indicating it may take some of that money back. To save time and money, forest supervisors will be encouraged to do environmental assessments on a watershed or landscape basis, she says, combining permits where it makes ecological sense.
Even if the work is not fully completed by year's end, Finney says the Forest Service will reissue all of the expiring permits. In controversial areas, some permits may be renewed for less than the standard 10 years, she says. "There is a very serious commitment in the agency to following through on this."
Doug Heiken, monitoring director for the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, questions the agency's sincerity. A Nov. 18 Forest Service draft document leaked to his group seems to contradict Chief Thomas' announcement - made just days later - that the agency would uphold the law, he says.
The internal document, which proposes changes to the agency's NEPA handbook, would exempt the renewal of grazing permits "where such use has not changed since authorized and no change in the physical environment or facilities are proposed." If this proposal becomes policy, Heiken says, the Forest Service could avoid environmental analysis for the vast majority of its grazing permits.
Even if the agency decides it must comply with NEPA for its grazing permits, Heiken fears it will do inadequate "boilerplate" environmental assessments to meet the deadline.
"Grazing should be suspended until the NEPA documentation is done right," says Heiken, whose group takes a harder line on that issue than the National Wildlife Federation. "That's what the law says."
Between a rock and a hard place
Beaverhead forest spokesman Jack De Golia says the settlement is the Forest Service's only realistic option. Without it, the agency would have to complete environmental assessments for 66 expiring grazing permits by the end of 1995, he says, and the National Wildlife Federation could still seek an injunction halting grazing on all 150 allotments where no NEPA analysis has occurred. "At least under this settlement we have grazing continuing now."
Wisdom, Mont., rancher Harold Peterson, who runs 200 calf-cow pairs on the Beaverhead every summer, says he doubts the Forest Service can even meet the settlement's extended deadlines. If it can't, Peterson says his ranching operation will be in real trouble. "Fifty percent of my cow herd goes on that (Beaverhead) allotment," he says. "If they take that away, it will really hurt me. You can't find a private pasture anyplace."
Peterson says ranchers could strike back if the agreement goes through. Their private lands provide essential winter habitat for the moose, elk and deer that wildlife federation members like to hunt. "We could keep the wildlife off our land," warns Peterson. "That would be a catastrophe. They (federation members) should be thinking about that."
Congress may offer ranchers another avenue. Jim Peterson of the Montana Stockgrowers Association says his group may ask lawmakers to change NEPA to provide some relief for ranchers.
"NEPA should not apply to every site specific decision," he says. "All it does is stall the process."
While Republicans in Washington have their sights set squarely on the Endangered Species Act, NEPA, signed into law by Richard Nixon, may be out of range, most observers agree.
"The nuclear industry hasn't been able to change it, neither has any other industry," says France. "But," he adds, "if anyone can change NEPA, it's the cowboy."
* Paul Larmer
The writer is HCN's associate editor.