WWP Files Two New Lawsuits Against The BLM in S.E. Oregon and Central Idaho

Online Messenger #63

Here is WWP's news release on the Burnt Creek Allotment Lawsuit filed on July 28, 2003. WWP is grateful for the hard work of WWP attorney Judi Brawer of the Boise Office of Advocates for the West on this lawsuit.

WWP Sues BLM to Protect Burnt Creek Wilderness Study Area

Western Watersheds Project has sued the Bureau of Land Management for violating federal environmental laws and the Challis Resource Management Plan on the Burnt Creek allotment in east-central Idaho.

The allotment is part of the Burnt Creek Wilderness Study Area. WWP contends that the BLM issued livestock grazing permits and made grazing management decisions for the allotment without conducting a sufficient environmental assessment required by federal law.

The lawsuit alleges that the BLM failed to consider alternatives to livestock grazing before issuing permits and took action before environmental reviews were completed. The agency also failed to comply with the Challis Resource Management Plan, adopted in 1999, by allowing livestock turnout on Burnt Creek when range improvements were not functional or properly maintained.

"Challis Resource Area personnel are derelict in their duties and are disregarding their own management plan," said Stew Churchwell, central Idaho director Western Watersheds Project. "Year after year, this has resulted in the degradation of rare and valuable resources, yet the BLM continues to deny it. Far worse, they have attempted to blame the public for their negligence."

During the 2001 grazing season, the agency determined that livestock grazing on Burnt Creek had violated the terms of the permit by exceeding stubble height standards and by livestock trespass within the Burnt Creek exclosure. WWP, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the BLM have documented the same violations for several years.

Earlier this summer, Churchwell provided the agencies with detailed reports of livestock trespass in the exclosure and poor ecological conditions within the allotment. The reports supplemented findings Churchwell has filed since the 2000 grazing season.

"The BLM's actions are unacceptable and are postponing the resolution of problems," he said.

The Burnt Creek allotment is in the heart of the Salmon River Basin. The area is critical spawning habitat for threatened bull trout.

Burnt Creek Wilderness Study Area, which contains all of the allotment, borders the 116,000-acre Borah Peak Roadless Area, which the U.S. Forest Service has recommended as wilderness.

The BLM's own Idaho Wilderness Study Report notes: "The primitive nature of the recommended area adds a spectacular example of sagebrush- and grass-covered hills with pockets of timber giving way to awesome, rugged mountains . . . Both areas are dominated by the 12,655-foot Borah Peak, the highest point in Idaho."

Under Churchwell's stewardship, WWP is conducting its own conservation project at the group's Greenfire Preserve on the East Fork of the Salmon River near Challis. The project involves land restoration, education and outreach.

LOOK AT the Burnt Creek Complaint (.doc)

Here is a Copy of a Greenwire E-Report from today (8/1/31) about the Southeast Oregon Resource Management Plan Lawsuit. WWP, ONDA and CHD are well represented by ONDA attorney, Mac Lacy in this proceeding.

Enviros file suit in Oregon over BLM wilderness policy, grazing

Natalie M. Henry, Greenwire reporter

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Nearly 5 million acres of grazing lands in southeastern Oregon's Owyhee canyonlands will offer the first legal test of Interior Secretary Gale Norton's decision to halt new wilderness designations on Bureau of Land Management property.

In a recently filed lawsuit, three Western environmental groups argue the Federal Land Policy and Management Act requires BLM to continually reassess land for wilderness resources. But because of the Interior Department's new policy prohibiting wilderness designations, environmentalists say there is no hope for protecting the fragile canyonlands long term.

Following a settlement last April with the state of Utah, Norton told BLM officials nationwide that the department would designate no new wilderness areas except by act of Congress, and then only in 22.8 million acres of wilderness study areas (WSAs) BLM had already inventoried in 1991.

In addition to questions of wilderness designation, environmentalists charge that BLM has violated the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act. The act requires BLM to determine which lands are "chiefly valuable for livestock grazing," as written in the law. But the groups say BLM failed to determine which lands in the southeastern Oregon resource management plan meet that criteria.

A spokeswoman for BLM's Vale District in Oregon, Debbie Lyons, said the Utah settlement on wilderness designations will not affect BLM land management in southeastern Oregon because the settlement occurred seven months after the Vale district completed its resource management plan, which guides management on 4.6 million acres of the canyonlands for the next 15 to 20 years. The plan took seven years to complete and was finalized in September 2002.

But Jon Marvel of the Western Watersheds Project, one of the plaintiff groups, said BLM did a poor job in its initial inventory of the WSAs in southeastern Oregon, and that by law the agency is required to continually assess resources values, including wilderness resources. The "no new wilderness" decision precludes that from happening, thereby violating the Land Policy and Management Act, he said.

The Owyhee canyonlands, a high desert region bordering Idaho and Nevada, forms part of what is considered the largest undeveloped, unprotected wildland in the lower 48 states, according to the Sierra Club.

BLM's 4.6 million acres, 98.7 percent of which is designated for grazing, includes all of Oregon's portion of the Owyhee River, including 100 miles of stream designated under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The Owyhee flows through a remote, largely roadless area where it has carved deep rhyolite rock canyons over the past 14 million years, creating "some of the most spectacular rhyolite canyons in the world," Marvel said.

The lands also contain remnants of a sagebrush steppe ecosystem, historic habitat for sage grouse, mountain lions, bobcats, redband trout, loggerhead shrike and the largest population of California bighorn sheep in the country. Microbiotic crusts also cover portions of the area, supporting unique plant life. Such organisms are destroyed when walked upon, especially by cattle, said Bill Martlett of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, another plaintiff group.

BLM officials acknowledge the region's unique wilderness qualities and say they have tried to add protected acreage to what the government already owns. Lyons said BLM did take into consideration a number of factors when drafting the new management plan, such as wildlife habitat, livestock uses, recreation and visual aesthetics, among other things.

Dave Harmon of BLM's Portland, Ore., office said the agency did add 3,280 acres to existing wilderness study areas under the new resource management plan. BLM had identified those acres in 1991 as places that, if acquired, would be added to existing WSAs, he said.

On the Taylor Grazing Act issue, environmentalists hope the court will clarify the language of the law to the benefit of grazing proponents and opponents alike. To date, there is no legislative, administrative or judicial history defining the phrase "chiefly valuable." Congress offered no legislative language to help define the term, nor has BLM has never offered any rules, regulations or guidelines on the issue. And to date, no court has ever ruled on on the matter, Martlett said.

LOOK AT the Southeast Oregon RMP Complaint (.doc)