July 1, 2005

Capital Press

Cattlemen conditionally support Simpson bill

Patricia R. McCoy

CASCADE, Idaho - The Idaho Cattle Association is reluctantly supporting the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act currently in Congress, provided that a compensation clause is included.

A resolution to that effect was approved after lengthy discussion at the ICA's midyear meeting here June 22.

The policy is an interim stand on the act, sponsored in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho. It will have to be ratified at the ICA's annual convention next winter, said Brenda Richards, chairman of the Federal and State Lands Committee.

In its present form, the proposal includes compensation for seven ranchers on the East Fork of the Salmon River, said Lindsay Slater, aide to Simpson. They hold U.S. Forest Service grazing permits that were sharply cut back as a result of environmental lawsuits.

The cuts reduced animal unit months and the time on the range by up to 50 percent on each operation.

"We wanted to stabilize those ranchers, but our hands were tied by the litigation. Our first idea was to trade lands, giving them private instead of federal forest lands on which to run. There were no lands to trade. So we came up with a compensation clause," Slater said. "It gives those ranchers the right to seek $300 per AUM."

Critics worry about setting a precedent. They also point out that the area's economy would be hurt if the ranchers went out of business. The impact is especially noticeable in the East Fork situation. Those ranches are in Idaho's Custer County, which is about 85 to 90 percent federal land, he said.

"Ranches with grazing permits are more valuable than those without, but so far the courts don't recognize that. Somehow we need to change that. If ranchers that lose AUMs can seek federal compensation, the courts should start ruling in the future that each AUM has at least that much value," he said.

Some environmentalists are seeking to buy out all AUMs, offering $175 for each.

The appropriate price could become what ranchers are willing to accept, he said.

"We agree it's kind of a one-time payment, and setting a precedent. In this case, we're offering the ranchers something for what they've already lost," he said. "At least it will give them some money with which to buy more private land so they can continue ranching. We don't want to buy out viable operations. We only want to compensate someone who is already hurt."

If compensation language is removed from the bill, Simpson will withdraw the legislation, Slater said.

Instead of solving the problem with cash, Congress needs to fix the underlying cause, the standards and guidelines being used to govern grazing permits, said Jeff Lord, ICA board member.

"We don't see outhouses on the public lands closed when they become filthy, or trails shut down when ruts become too deep. We're using a renewable resource, but we're being pushed off the lands," Lord said.

"You're right, but as long as the Endangered Species Act is not reformed, we're going to have this problem," Slater said.

The seven East Fork ranchers may be facing their death knell, said Bruce Mulkey, also an ICA board member.

"I hope every one of them gets a development permit and subdivides their private land. I don't think the government has enough money to solve the problem with a compensation program," Mulkey said.

The bill would create three new wilderness areas in the Boulder-White Clouds area, and establish a permanent grazing permit for permittees in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

ICA generally opposes new wilderness and programmatic permit buyout programs, said Richards.

Language stating that is included in the interim policy approved during the mid-year meeting. The policy also includes a statement recognizing the need to support locally affected members if they deem a buyout of their permits appropriate at the local level, she said.