To say that one of Grant County's most important industries - cattle ranching - is threatened by environmental litigation is just too simplistic. The fact is, the immediate threat stems not so much from the demands of environmentalists, but from the lack of adequate monitoring of grazing practices and their effects.
The issue of monitoring is at the heart of still unresolved litigation over grazing allotments on the Malheur National Forest. Without adequate monitoring, the Forest Service - and the permit-holders - are at a loss to prove that their grazing program is a positive aspect of the forest's management.
The issue is getting some attention in high places. U.S. Sens. Gordon Smith and Ron Wyden recently sent a joint letter to Mark Rey, Department of Agriculture undersecretary, supporting a proposed collaborative effort to develop appropriate monitoring that will draw on resources at Oregon State University and also involve the permittees.
The letter confirmed the importance of ranching and of forest grazing programs to Grant and Harney counties - and to Oregon's rural economy.
"The absence of Forest Service monitoring data on grazing activities in Malheur National Forest prevents objective confirmation of the success and sustainability of these grazing programs," the senators wrote.
They asked that money be allocated to provide the necessary monitoring, and that adequate protocols for it be developed before the end of this year's grazing season.
The Grant County Court last week added its voice to the effort. Judge Mark Webb and Commissioners Scott Myers and Boyd Britton wrote a letter Aug. 13 to Smith and Wyden, lauding the senators for recognizing the need for sustainable management and the critical importance of grazing.
"We appreciate your willingness to draw attention to and address the lack of appropriate protocols or monitoring by the Malheur National Forest," the Court wrote. "The lack of appropriate protocols or monitoring causes potentially serious consequences for many of our ranching families."
The plea for more funding for monitoring comes at a difficult time, as wildland firefighting across the West saps the Forest Service budget. That's an issue that also needs addressing. But the larger question of how to separate firefighting costs from other forest operations could take a long time and a lot of Congressional maneuvering to sort out. Our ranching communities may not be able to wait that long.
It's time for the Forest Service to step up on the monitoring issue, make use of the resources available through Oregon State University, and work with the permittees to solve the problem. It would be a travesty if an industry that has long been a mainstay in Grant County foundered because of something so fixable.