While the logger or firefighter might seem the typical character of the U.S. Forest Service world, ranchers play a noticeable role too.
That got them particular attention last month when Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue called on the Forest Service to restore trust with the ranching community by being more attentive to the needs of livestock on public land.
Perdue’s memo called for more support of grazing on the Forest Service’s 3.8 million acres of National Grasslands across 12 western states. It orders the agency to use greater flexibility in working with ranching families and communities, and allows for renewal of grazing permits to the third generation of a family. The Forest Service has granted 6,250 grazing permits as of 2020.
Bryan Mussard, past president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, was enthusiastic about the extension of grazing permits to the grandchildren of ranching families. Currently, ranch owners must own at least 50 percent of the cattle they run by permit on Forest Service grazing allotments. They may let their second-generation children share up to half the allotment’s cattle limit. The new rules would allow third-generation family members to share in the permit. Mussard said there is no time limit on the permits – instead they run as long as the family owns the permit.
“It’s really changing the culture,” Mussard said. “We (ranchers) had a fantastic relationship with the Forest Service 50 years ago. The environmental movement has been chipping away at that for the last 40 years.”
That’s also the period, in the early 1970s, when Congress passed many of the environmental protection laws that govern activity on the nation’s public lands. The National Environmental Policy Act, commonly known as NEPA, passed in 1970. The Clean Water Act passed in 1972, restricting what farmers and ranchers could do with water flowing across their property. And the Endangered Species Act of 1973 resulted in the federal protection of animals such as grizzly bears and wolves, which ranchers see as a threat to their livelihoods.
Critics of the change, such as Michael Garrity of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, have frequently sued the Forest Service and won for failure to follow those environmental laws. Garrity said ranching practices were often at the heart of the need for those rules on public land.
“I don’t think that where the Forest Service has a problem is they’re too hard on the ranchers,” Garrity said. “I would contend it’s that they were putting grazing above the impacts to wildlife and fish.”
Garrity cited recent controversy over grazing in the Antelope Basin and Red Rocks Lake region of southwest Montana, where he said a public-private effort to keep the sage grouse from reaching endangered status has been thwarted by Forest Service preference for ranching needs.
“The management indicator species for that area was sage grouse, but they couldn’t find any sage grouse because they’d burned or poisoned all the sagebrush in the habitat,” Garrity said. “Just because they couldn’t find any sage grouse didn’t mean they were complying with the law. The area was supposed to be managed for the benefit of wildlife and instead they were managing for the benefit of cattle.”
French said Perdue’s memo will not affect how the Forest Service applies other management tools such as the Endangered Species Act to oversight of cattle grazing activity. Rather, it could bring about renewed emphasis on the agency’s personnel needs.
“The secretary is asking us to look at our relationship with folks who manage the land in relationship with us,” French said. “Our operations are closely intertwined. But if you look at the agency in the last 15 or 20 years, we’ve lost about 40 percent of our non-fire staff.”
The consolidation of national forests and shrinkage of public outposts has further eroded the agency’s public contact, French said. Many forest supervisors oversee territories three or four times larger than just a decade ago.
“And a lot of our ranching customers say to us ‘I don’t even know who the person is who oversees us — we only know them by letter,’” French said. “The secretary says that has to change.”
Third of a three-part series. To see a description of this series, go to this story on Missoulian.com.
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