Group appeals grazing permit decision

Environmental organization hopes to end livestock grazing on public lands

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— An Idaho environmental group is appealing the Bureau of Land Management's decision to allow a grazing permit on 255,000 acres of public land in Moffat and Routt counties.

The appeal is the first legal step in the group's effort to end livestock grazing on public land by 2011.

The Western Watershed Project filed the petition on Jan. 29. The BLM has granted 10-year permits to the Raftopoulos family and John Steele on land spread throughout Moffat and northwest Routt counties. The group claims the BLM's environmental assessment and environmental impact statements show that livestock has damaged riparian areas, contributing to the loss of species such as the sage grouse and detouring the recovery opportunity of the land.

"This whole process of appealing BLM decisions is open to the public," said Jon Marvel, executive director of the Western Watershed Project. He said much of the BLM land in Northwest Colorado has been managed for one purpose: grazing. He argued that doesn't reflect a public recreation interest in the area and the environmental good of the land.

David Blackstun of BLM said it's no secret domestic grazing on public lands has been damaging in the past, before its effect on the environment was considered.

"Around the water, animals tend to congregate," he said of the riparian areas the project's appeal mentioned. "There have been practices that we need to improve upon, but that's what we are trying to do."

Blackstun said the new 10-year permit includes modern techniques to minimize the livestock's impact on land.

The changes reduce the number of livestock, require more grazing rotations and require that there be developed water away from riparian areas.

John Steele and Steve Raftopoulos graze their 2,000 head of cattle in the majority of the allotments in question, while Steele's operation is much smaller, Blackstun said.

"Our No. 1 concern has to be the protection of the forage," Raftopoulos said.

Therefore, protecting the health of the range is in his family's best interest.

Marvel had a chance to participate in the permit's renewal process to help ensure environmental concerns were being met early on, Raftopoulos said, but didn't show an interest.

The majority of the public land in debate is in the Vermillion Basin, which was proposed to be a wilderness area by a consortium of conservation groups last year. Moffat County Commissioner Mariana Raftopoulos, who is married to John Raftopoulos, strongly opposed the wilderness proposal.

Steve Raftopoulos said he thinks that is one of the reasons an environmental group has showed interest in their permits.

Marvel said that isn't true.

"We chose this because they were the first permits we received information on in Colorado," he said. The appeal will be considered by the Interior Board of Land Appeals.

A decision could take three to five years, Blackstun said. In the next couple of months the board will decide if the ranchers can have a "stay" on their permits, which extends the conditions of the old permits until a decision is made on the new ones.

In other words, Blackstun said, the BLM's attempt to better manage the land may not be put in place and the old, more destructive practices could be allowed to continue.

Marvel said he is pushing for the board to grant the stay but under the protective condition outlined in the appeal.

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