GRAZING EXAMINED ON THE WEST FORK BLACKS FORK
Right in the middle of the insufferably hot early summer weeks, with a sizzling wind blowing off the already bone-dry slopes above Coalville, a small group of folks, mostly conservationists led by Bill Worf, all the way down from Missoula, settled behind the railing of the Coalville County Courthouse while Forest Service folks from the Evanston Ranger District explained why grazing thousands of domestic sheep for decades on the most fragile subalpine and alpine landscapes that exist is little problem and should continue.
The only person that this made any sense to at the meeting, not surprisingly, was the permittee who sat in the back of the room, arms crossed, speaking not a word.
The essence of this meeting was the informal announcement that the Forest Service would be preparing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to analyze the impacts of sheep grazing on the West Fork Blacks Fork (WFBF) allotment, which lies almost entirely within the High Uintas Wilderness. The Forest Service was thereby informing those interested that the 1999 Environmental Assessment's (EA) determination that grazing must be reduced on the WFBF was incorrect because the Forest Service has now decided that they were measuring impacts of sheep grazing on the wrong landscapes and that, lo and behold, sheep really aren't a significant concern or problem.
Let's step back a bit. After years of concern dating back to the mid 1960s, the Forest Service finally initiated an Environmental Analysis of alpine grazing on the West Fork Blacks Fork (see HUPC LYNX 4/99, 4/00, 8/00, 2/02, 6/02) early in 1998. By late summer 1999 the Evanston Ranger District had released a pre-decisional Environmental Assessment, asking for public comments and noting that, indeed, grazing exceeded capacity on the allotment and proposing something like a 14% reduction of sheep numbers, a rest-rotation grazing pattern on the alpine portions of the allotment, and a number of other reforms. All of this was a positive and welcome step. Along with dozens of other conservationists, ecologists, and former Forest Service managers (Bill Worf, now the president of Wilderness Watch in Missoula, was a young District Ranger on the old Whiterocks Ranger District on the Ashley National Forest, just over the ridge form the West Fork Blacks Fork, in the mid and late 50s), we noted that the decision did not go far enough and was curiously disconnected from the good data in the EA. We requested from the beginning that the Forest Service prepare an EIS-- a more detailed and public-sensitive process than the more generic and aloof EA.
On the other hand, the hue and cry from permittees and folks from SW Wyoming was shrill. At least two of us involved in this issue have received various threats, due in part to this simple analysis that sheep have overgrazed the West Fork Blacks Fork.
So passed 1999, 2000 and most of 2001 without a decision emanating from the EA as to how the Forest Service would allocate sheep grazing and respond to the detailed comments from conservationists about both ecological substance and process! Very late in 2001 the Evanston Ranger District noted that they were going to switch directions, not release the final EA, and, ironically, prepare an EIS based on the issues noted above. In January they noted the EIS would be initiated: A scoping document including a summary of the additional analysis is currently being prepared and will be released before the end of January 2002.
Then in April the Forest Service noted, A scoping document including a summary of the additional analysis is currently being prepared and will be released this spring.
In June the Forest Service announced the Coalville meeting for 8 July, with a letter that noted, A scoping document including a summary of the additional analysis will be mailed to those individuals who commented on the Predecisional Environmental Assessment or have indicated a desire to be informed about this project.
Hasn't yet happened!
While we understand it has been a hectic summer on the Evanston District with the large East Fork Fire, it shouldn't go unnoticed that the District did manage to send out a scoping letter initiating a major timber harvesting operation, West Fork of the Bear River Ecosystem Management Project, rather than getting the WFBF scoping letter out. Simply put, it has been over 4 years since the scoping letter went out for the WFBF sheep allotment, over 2 years since a pre-decisional EA was released, and now a new scoping letter setting forth an EIS has been promised and promised and still not delivered. It is getting easier and easier to understand why many folks think the Forest Service simply doesn't want to make a decision on grazing on the sensitive alpine country on the Uintas, simply deferring to the grazing permittees.
Meanwhile, the Forest Service assures us domestic sheep grazing is not much of a problem and that they were simply measuring the wrong areas--snow barrens where snow comes off late and vegetation growth is minimal. This may be true, though we still haven't seen the actual data the Forest Service is relying on, because nothing has been released. But it doesn't answer the question of impacts of sheep grazing on the integrity of alpine and subalpine ecosystems; the data here, decades of it, shows domestic sheep grazing obviously has meaningful impacts upon these tenuous and brittle ecosystems.
The Evanston Ranger District needs to put other projects on hold and initiate and complete the WFBF analysis. (Note that the Evanston District Travel Plan is also in this condition of a seemingly never ending process-- 8 years and still not a decision (see HUPC LYNX 2/02.)) These decisions are too important, suspicions are growing, and expectations are waning!