Grazing foes’ victory claim in error

<p>It's landscape like this north of Imnaha where eight USFS grazing allotments in Wallowa County are under legal challenge. The allotments are part of a much larger, two-forest lawsuit.</p>

On April 24, the Hells Canyon Preservation Council (HCPC) issued a statement noting time had run out for opponents to appeal a federal court ruling favorable to HCPC and another conservation group teamed in a grazing lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service.

One day later, the conservation director for the HCPC, Veronica Warnock, circulated an apology for that press release, admitting that the end of that appeal period instead is May 6.

HCPC and the Natural Desert Association filed their suit in 2011 in the federal District Court of Oregon. Of the more than quarter-million acres covered in the suit throughout much of the Wallowa-Whitman and Umatilla National Forests, about 12,600 acres of the total – some of it on private lands – is located on steep grazing lands generally in the Imnaha area of northeast Wallowa County.

Cynthia Warnock, program director for the Wallowa Soil and Water Conservation District, says Wallowa County’s real estate within the lawsuit is enveloped by one USFS decision made Sept. 26, 2008, that involved eight grazing allotments and seven livestock operators who lease those allotments.

Of those seven, Warnock says four have officially filed to become intervenors in the process, giving each of them as well as the USFS until May 6 to place an appeal. She declined to name the four.

The issue, according to HCPC’s legal counsel Jennifer Schwartz –formerly an HCPC attorney in La Grande and now an independent attorney in Portland – deals in large part with a Congressional rider called “categorical exclusions.” First legalized in 2005 and withdrawn at the end of 2008, the application of the categorical exclusions rider allowed the USFS to re-issue grazing permits (often for 10 years) without going through a lengthy National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) assessment.

Warnock says some NEPA criteria still needed to be met, but a full-blown NEPA assessment was not mandated under the rider.

Schwartz, speaking both for the HCPC and the Oregon Natural Desert Association, argues the USFS “abused its authority under the rider.” She says, “There are very important resources at stake. Many of these lands have not been thoroughly assessed for decades.”

On Feb. 22, 2013, the federal District Court of Oregon upheld the HCNC/Oregon Natural Desert Association lawsuit.

Describing herself as a contact person to share information with grazers involved in the lawsuit, Cynthia Warnock says, in reality, grazers here could prove to be minimally impacted by any resolution of the suit. Had the conservation groups sought an injunction instead of filing suit, grazing rights could have been curtailed.

As it is, she says, the Forest Service — the owners of the property — would be the party affected most. Lacking an appeal that would reverse the District Court of Oregon decision, the USFS will have to conduct full NEPA assessments on the eight allotments in Wallowa County (as well as elsewhere in the two-forest area).

Cynthia Warnock says she doesn’t know how much priority the Forest Service will assign to quickly conducting those Imnaha-area allotment assessments.

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