As the Clinton administration backpedals in the nation's capitol from grazing reforms, an environmental lawsuit is moving ahead in Montana.
A federal judge will
soon decide whether the Forest Service must do analyses for 150
allotments where ranchers run livestock on the Beaverhead National
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
"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."
also gives ranchers a strong incentive to press the Forest Servce
to finish the environmental assessments on time, he says.
Ranchers see it
"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."
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
A race against
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,
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
"NEPA should not apply to every
site specific decision," he says. "All it does is stall the
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
"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
The writer is HCN's