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Problem With California Cattle Grazing Reviews

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Concluding that the government mishandled some cattle-grazing permits in the Pacific Northwest, a federal judge ordered it to confer with environmentalists on a possible remedy.

Western Watersheds and other nonprofit environmental groups sued the U.S. Forest Service in 2008 for reauthorizing livestock grazing on federal land without conducting proper environmental reviews, in alleged violation of the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act. Commonly known by its abbreviation, NEPA aims "to balance the need for timely processed and fairly executed grazing permits against the need for environmental review," U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton's wrote.

Before any federal action that will significantly affect the environment, the Forest Service must prepare an environmental assessment and then a detailed environmental impact statement.

The agency cannot waive these obligations if "extraordinary circumstances" might significantly impact the environment.

NEPA analyses have been standard for reissuing grazing permits since 1994, but the agency fell behind because of the large number of permits issued each year. Congress intervened by establishing a temporary NEPA exemption for those permits due to expire before agency action.

Still struggling with a backlog in 2005, Congress allowed the Forest Service to issue waivers for certain grazing permits in 2005 through 2007. The waivers applied to areas that maintained current grazing management; that met or approached predetermined land and resource-management objectives; and did not involve agency policy concerning "extraordinary circumstances."

Congress renewed the waiver again in 2008, adding the additional caveat that grazing permits issued in designated wilderness areas must face environmental review.

Western Watersheds and the other environmental groups then sued the U.S. Forest Service, alleging that the agency inappropriately excluded hundreds of grazing permits from environmental review and did not comply with the requisite conditions.

Just seven permit waivers in three national forests - Klamath, Lassen and Mendocino - remain from the initial challenge against 138 such cases.

The Forest Service claimed that it issued its waiver for Klamath's Big Ridge area after management plans showed that the area was "meeting or satisfactorily moving toward Forest Plan objectives," according to the agency's annual report. But the environmental groups say the Big Ridge area actually departed from objectives, and that the agency's monitoring information was inadequate and outdated.

On this issue, Hamilton sided with the Forest Service. "The court's review of the record reveals that there is no fatal failure by the Forest Service to explain the conclusions reached in the Big Ridge CE decision memo: defendant has, at a minimum, supported its conclusions with reliable studies and data, and adequately explained the reasons why it considered the underlying evidence reliable," she wrote Friday.

"In sum, the administrative record provides reasonable support for the Forest Service's decision to conclude that the Big Ridge allotment was trending towards meeting the LRMP [land and resource management plan] objectives for soil/plant diversity/rangeland."

But Hamilton did say it was "arbitrary and capricious" for the Forest Service to not conduct reviews for permits in designated wilderness areas of Big Ridge.

The environmentalists won summary judgment as to their claims over Mendocino, which Hamilton said suffered from a complete lack of monitoring and evaluation information.

"In sum, the court concludes that the administrative record is devoid of condition and trend studies that the LRMP requires to be completed at 5-10 year intervals; does not reflect that forage utilization standards were satisfactorily being met for all allotments; and does not include sufficient photographic documentation to determine the state of the allotments' rangeland or soil conditions," she wrote.

The plaintiffs and the U.S. Forest Service must confer and submit either a stipulated form of judgment or a joint statement proposing another form of disposition to Hamilton by April 20.

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