A ruling in the ongoing legal war between the Hells Canyon Preservation Council (HCPC) and the U.S. Forest Service was handed down in May by U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones, who upheld findings and recommendations made by a lower court in February.
That ruling was basically that the Forest Service will be required to subject its rules and regulations for private lands within the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process.
The Forest Service has until mid-July to decide whether to appeal the ruling, and if it does the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners has indicated it could join in the appeal.
If there is no appeal, or if a higher court upholds Jones's judgment, the long NEPA process, including extensive public input, will be started.
While the HCPC says the judgment means cattle along the Imnaha River will no longer be allowed to degrade salmon habitat, Forest Service spokesmen say natural resources are already protected by present private land regulations.
"We'd just like the public to know the case is about a process, not about cows," said the Forest Service's lands program manager for the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area (HCNRA)Tom Glassford. "This ruling is a procedural order to apply the NEPA process. What it is not is a ruling that cites any harm to any resource in the HCNRA."
In a press release circulated after the ruling, however, HCPC conservation director/staff attorney Brett Brownscombe blasted the federal agency in colorful terms: "It is now clear that the Forest Service cannot close its eyes, pinch its nose and turn away from thousands of cows trampling the banks and running feces into one of Oregon's great salmon streams just because they exist on private lands. Ecosystems cross political boundaries and the judge has clarified that the law requires the agency to craft its management in a way that respects that."
The Forest Service private regulations were developed in 1993, and defer enforcement to such entities as the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Environmental Quality. According to Glassford ranchers have been cited in the past, indicating that enforcement measures are being taken for violations.
He said that he finds it ironic that the reason the NEPA process wasn't followed back in 1993 was that the Forest Service was under a timeline imposed because of legal action by the Hells Canyon Preservation Council. "The timeline didn't give us time to go through the NEPA process."
The ruling came in connection with a lawsuit filed by the Hells Canyon Preservation Council in 2000 charging that the Forest Service was not in compliance with the HCNRA Act and the Endangered Species Act. The original charges were dismissed or ruled moot, and the claim on which Judge Jones ruled concerning NEPA was added at a later time.