RITTER - A Malheur National Forest allotment used by a longtime local rancher is the target of the latest legal challenge to grazing rights in Eastern Oregon.

The Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) and six other groups filed the suit April 27 in federal court in Portland. The suit contends that under the Clean Water Act, the Forest Service may only issue a grazing permit if the state first certifies that the grazing complies with standards for water temperature.

The suit specifically challenges the permit issued to Bill Colvin, who runs about 400 head of cattle along the Middle Fork John Day River, east of Highway 395.

Colvin also owns a ranch nearby, but he estimates that without the public land, he would need to cut his herd by half.

The lawsuit targeted that permit because the Middle Fork is considered a world-class river with critical steelhead habitat. They charge that decades of overgrazing have reduced shade, widened channels and increased sedimentation, damaging water quality and fish habitat.

"Our ultimate goal is to recover steelhead to levels in the John Day so they can once again be a central social, cultural and economic asset to people in the basin and to all Oregonians," said Bill Marlett, ONDA executive director, in announcing the suit. "To recover the steelhead, we need to first recover their habitat."

The lawsuit reopens the debate over whether grazing should be considered a "point" source of runoff, which would be subject to regulation under the federal Clean Water Act. A 9th Circuit Court decision in 1998 ruled it to be "non-point" source, but a more recent Supreme Court case involving discharge from a hydro dam in Maine has left the interpretation of non-point sources of pollution open to further debate.

Sharon Livingston, president of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association and a Long Creek rancher, was frustrated that the issue was being raised again.

"In 1998, we won this one," she said.

Livingston sees the lawsuit as another in a series of legal efforts to put cattle ranchers out of business.

"Once they get the public lands, they will go after our private lands," she said.

She said the challenges come despite the many improvements that ranchers have made to grazing lands. With their livelihoods at stake, ranch operators have a vested interest in ensuring that grazing land remains healthy for the future, and many are working with resource agencies to do just that.

"We are conservationists, but these groups don't believe that," she said.

Colvin, 66, grew up in the area, went to Long Creek School and has ranched locally his entire adult life. He said he isn't sure what the grazing challenges mean for the future of cattle ranching.

"It isn't too bright," he said.

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