... and invoked for salmon, against grazing

 

In the battle to save the northern spotted owl, environmental groups have brandished the Endangered Species Act as a sword to halt logging. Now they are using the controversial law against grazing, for the sake of another threatened species - Snake River chinook salmon.

In July, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco agreed that cattle grazing, logging and roadbuilding in chinook habitat are all subject to strict regulation under the act. The Forest Service must yield to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which holds primary responsiblity for saving the salmon.

So far, the Forest Service has refused to let the Fisheries Service review anything but new programs or activities. But the appeals court ruled that the agency is mistaken.

For now, the ruling applies only to the Wallowa-Whitman and Umatilla national forests of eastern Oregon and Washington. But it could set a "huge precedent" affecting grazing in six national forests in Idaho, and possibly elsewhere, said Adam Berger, lawyer for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. The fund handled the appeal for the Pacific Rivers Council of Eugene, Ore.

The council has filed a similar suit in a Boise federal court, using the act to challenge grazing in the Idaho forests, all of which are in the Salmon River basin. A decision in that case has been put on hold, pending the outcome of the Oregon litigation.

"The message that the court has sent is that it is not permissible for agencies to continue with business as usual where the survival of threatened or endangered species is at stake," Berger said.

The Pacific Rivers Council filed the suits in 1992, shortly after the Fisheries Service listed the salmon as threatened. The population of Snake River salmon is now a remnant, numbering in the low thousands. Only decades ago the population approached 1 million. Blame for the decline has fallen on dams, overfishing, and changing ocean conditions as well as habitat destruction in spawning areas such as those covered by the lawsuits.

The council complained that the Forest Service refused even to consider whether ongoing grazing, logging and road-building programs hurt the salmon.

The Forest Service permits some 10,000 cows to graze in the Umatilla and Wallowa-Whitman national forests. Typically, said Berger, the cows graze near streambeds that provide important habitat for the salmon. The Forest Service has also completed 20 timber sales and 10 road projects in salmon spawning areas.

David Bayles, public lands director for the rivers council, said the case does not simplify to jobs versus the environment. "The loss of salmon habitat has already wreaked an economic hardship all up and down the West Coast ... a continuing loss of a fishery that's worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year." He also said the goal is not to remove all cattle from the forest - only from the allotments where grazing impacts salmon.

Local officials see things differently. Ben Boswell, a Wallowa County commissioner in Enterprise, Ore., said the ruling itself could actually harm the salmon. "The bottom line is if these cattle are removed from public lands, they will be concentrated on private lands. The result will be overuse of riparian areas on private lands. That will probably do more direct damage to salmon habitat than leaving them out on the forest." Moreover, he said, 46 families could lose grazing permits, subtracting some $3.5 million from the local economy.

Salmon restoration in the Northwest already costs electric ratepayers and taxpayers as much as $350 million a year. A Forest Service spokeswoman said the agency is reviewing the decision.

For more information, contact the U.S. Forest Service, Region 6, P.O. Box 3623, Portland, OR 97208 (503/326-2971) or the Pacific Rivers Council, P.O. Box 10798, Eugene, OR 97440 (503/345-0119).

Paul Koberstein reports in Portland, Oregon.

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