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Ranchers, state plead with Forest Service to resolve issues

Posted 3/30/11 (Wed)

Ranchers, state plead with Forest Service to resolve issues

By Neal A. Shipman
Farmer Editor

For most of the past 60 years the U.S. Forest Service, which administers over one million acres of land of the National Grasslands in North Dakota, and the ranchers that graze cattle on these lands, have worked together cooperatively to ensure the health of the public land is maintained while allowing cattlemen to maintain their livelihoods.
But in the past decade, that cooperative spirit of managing the grasslands has turned downright contentious. Ranchers, as well as state and county officials, are claiming that the Forest Service is enacting new policies and management plans that are driving cattle off the grasslands and the agency isn’t listening to local concerns.
And the Forest Service has countered that it is obliged to enact policies for these federal lands that not only allow for grazing, but also for a variety of other uses.
It was this tug of war that brought Tom Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, to Watford City last Monday morning to hear firsthand the concerns of state and local officials as well as western North Dakota ranchers.
“My purpose here is to listen to the folks directly,” stated Tidwell, a 34-year veteran of the U.S. Forest Service who was asked to come to the state by U.S. Sen. John Hoeven. “My intent is to find a way forward in reaching a resolution.”
According to Shane Goettle, Hoeven’s chief of staff in North Dakota, the two pressing issues that the Senator would like to be resolved is utilizing mediators from the North Dakota Agriculture Dept. to help settle disputes between local grazing associations and the U.S. Forest Service and that the U.S. Forest Service incorporate range science that is developed at North Dakota State University into its planning process, as well as management decisions.
“I’m encouraged that this may be a new day in helping resolve the issues,” stated Doug Goehring, North Dakota Ag Commissioner. “There are many issues between the grazing associations and the Forest Service.”
But still Goehring was skeptical, considering past actions by the Forest Service, of the Forest Service’s intentions to resolve disputes.
“The North Dakota Ag Dept.’s mediators are certified by the federal government and are trained and capable,” stated Goehring. “It is our hope that we can reach an agreement on how these resources can be used in North Dakota and South Dakota.”
But Goehring was also quick to point out to Tidwell that the U.S. Forest Service has twice denied using North Dakota ag mediators to help resolve conflicts on the Little Missouri National Grasslands.
“I don’t believe that the last time we used our ag mediators to resolve a dispute on the Grand River Ranger District in South Dakota, that the process worked well,” stated Goehring. “The Forest Service walked away from the process.”
And the lack of being able to work together to resolve disputes is frustrating local grazing associations as well as county commissioners.
“In the last 10 years, we’ve been forced to use the federal court system to get our issues resolved with the Forest Service,” stated Keith Winter, president of the McKenzie County Grazing Association. “And we’re now worried that the Forest Service is going around the settlement decision.”
The current appeal system set up by the Forest Service, according to Winter, doesn’t work since any appeals are only heard by Forest Service staff members.
And, according to Dale Patten, McKenzie County commissioner, the Forest Service refuses to provide information to the county commissioners and has denied them an active role in developing management plans on the grasslands.
The McKenzie County Commissioners, according to Patten, requested cooperating agency status on Jan. 5, 2010 during the planning process and then again on July 23 and Aug. 23. Those requests, as well as a Aug. 23, 2010 request under the Freedom of Information Act for the soils analysis that the Forest Service had used to develop its 3.5” VOR recommendation in its latest pasture management plans were never responded to.
“The comment period ended and we still have not received any of the information that we requested,” stated Patten. “That does not reflect well on the Forest Service. It boils down to how can we (the county commissioners) adequately comment when no information is provided to us.”
While Goehring and grazing association members would love to see the North Dakota Ag Dept. be able to use its mediators to help resolve disputes with the Forest Service, Tidwell says that mediation doesn’t work well with the way the agency develops its management plans.
“Mediation works well with individuals,” stated Tidwell. “But it doesn’t work well when you have a public input process.”
According to Tidwell, even if the parties involved agreed with a mediation decision, the Forest Service would still be required to then take that decision back into its public comment process where a different decision could be reached.
“Ideally, we need to reach agreement before the decision is made,” suggested Tidwell. “That is where we need to put our time and energy.”
According to Patten, the county’s experience with mediation in its lawsuit against the Forest Service regarding Roadless Areas worked.
But once again, noted Patten, it was the Forest Service that didn’t follow through on its obligations.
“We’re gong to have to go back to court to force the Forest Service to  do what it said it would do,” stated Patten. “We’ve not seen any resolution and the Forest Service seems to follow a policy of discretionary compliance. We have no trust in the Forest Service. It does not stand behind what it agreed to.”
Goehring also questioned Tidwell as to why the Forest Service’s public input process is so unique from other federal agencies.
“The Forest Service seems to keep making changes to its policies,” commented Goehring. “Most agencies work with state agencies in developing rules and regulations, but you don’t. The Forest Service needs to stand up and say this is how we’re gong to work with the stakeholders.”
If the Forest Service and the grazing associations seem to be light years apart on the use of mediation to resolve disputes, they are even farther apart when it comes to using collaborating science when it comes to developing pasture management plans.
“One has to wonder if there isn’t an agenda that’s driving the questioning of our science,” stated Goehring. “We (North Dakota) have a valuable resource with our range scientists at N.D.S.U. who have a great understanding of western North Dakota land. We encourage you to use our resources in your planning.”
According to Kevin Sedivec, a rangeland specialist at N.D.S.U., a key issue is the lack of scientific data being used by the Forest Service when it develops its plans.
“The hot question is what is biologically capable,” stated Sedivec, who has 20 years of experience on the grasslands. “The problem is that the policy is being implemented before the science is done. We knew seven years ago that biologically capable data is lacking.”
At the heart of the biologically capable debate is the Forest’s Service’s new pasture allotment plan that would require a 3.5” Visual Obstruction Reading (VOR) on 20 to 30 percent of the pastures.
The Forest Service, based on its studies, says that the grasslands are biologically capable of having as much as 85 to 95 percent of land being able to meet that high structure standard.
The grazing associations, using Sedivec’s research, believe that only three to five percent of the grasslands can achieve that requirement.
And that means ranchers could be facing stocking rate reductions of upwards to 40 percent.
“We need to do the monitoring to determine whether or not the rational is sound,” stated Tidwell. “When we have the information, then we can go back to the public process. What we need to focus on is the condition of the resource - be it at the end of a year, five years or 10 years.”
While last Monday’s hearing may have opened some dialogue between the U.S. Forest Service and the State of North Dakota and the grazing associations as to ways to resolve their disputes, most ranchers left the meeting skeptical that anything was going to change.
And perhaps State Ag Commissioner Doug Goehring summed up their feelings the best with his parting comment, “I’m going to be optimistic until you (the Forest Service) prove to me otherwise.”