SMAC now down to just four members

by Randy Parks
Burns Times-Herald

U.S. Representative Greg Walden made a stop in Burns Friday, April 25, to visit with local ranchers and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) representatives about the agency’s decision that it is not their responsibility to put up fencing between public and private land on Steens Mountain.

The decision by the BLM came after Harney County rancher George Stroemple wanted to graze his cattle on his property on Steens Mountain, which happens to lie within the “No Livestock Grazing” area of the wilderness created by the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act, passed into law in 2000.

At the heart of the dispute is the question of who should build the fence to keep Stroemple’s cattle off the wilderness area.

The Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act states, “The Secretary (of the Interior) shall be responsible for installing and maintaining any fencing required for resource protection within the designated no livestock grazing area.”

After the BLM interpreted the law does not require the agency to keep private livestock on private land, Stroemple appealed to the Department of the Interior.

Because of the appeal, Walden was unable to meet with the local ranchers and the BLM representatives at the same time, so he held separate meetings with each of the two entities.

Walden first met with local ranchers, and explained that in the 14 years since the Act was passed into law, this is the third time he has had to revisit the issue because of the way the law has been interpreted.

The first was a dispute over the summer running camp, the second was a dispute over road use, and the third is the fencing issue.

“I came pretty close to writing this entire law, and it says the federal government will fence out the cows,” Walden said.

He added that others in the Oregon delegation that helped write the law also remember it that way, and the BLM’s interpretation broke the trust that was built around the legislation.

Fred Otley, a rancher in Diamond, stated that part of the problem could stem from a change in BLM personnel, but there were specific discussion points during the drafting of the Act, and fencing was one of them.

Stacy Davies of Roaring Springs Ranch noted that it was clear that the BLM would build and maintain the fences.

One of the points of discussion during the Act’s negotiations was whether the BLM would be responsible for fencing between public and private land, as well as between two areas of public land.

“Everybody agreed this was something that needed to be done. It was not in dispute,” Walden said. He added that all the conservation groups at the table, as well as the Oregon delegation, were in agreement on the matter.

Scott Campbell of Silvies Valley Ranch, who also owns property on Steens Mountain, commented that the BLM’s interpretation of the law is a “symptom of a much larger problem.” He said he works with federal agencies on a daily basis, and they are changing the rules on a day-to-day basis.

Campbell said he received approval from the Steens Mountain Advisory Council (SMAC) for some work on two water holes on his property, and after cleaning one water hole, the BLM withdrew permission to take the equipment to the other water hole.

The ranchers said they would allow the fences on their property and work with the BLM to resolve the issue. It was also pointed out that several functional fences have been removed by the BLM, and the BLM’s wild horses are found on private land.

Davies said another point of contention is that the BLM has closed a number of roads on Steens Mountain in recent years, but has never opened one. And the new recreation plan being proposed by the BLM includes closing down another 93 miles of road.

There was a discussion on the SMAC, created by the Act. The SMAC is supposed to be a 12-member body, but it is now down to just four members. Davies said the current administration has only made four appointments to the SMAC, and they don’t want to follow the advice of the council, which results in people not wanting to serve on the SMAC.

Following the meeting with the ranchers, Walden then met with BLM State Director Jerry Perez and Burns District Manager Brendan Cain.

Walden acknowledged that neither of the men were here when the Act was drafted, and told them, “We have a serious problem here.”

Walden said that back in 1999, when the Clinton presidency proposed a national monument designation for Steens Mountain, the Resource Advisory Committee said no designation was needed.

“Local ranchers came up with the idea of a cow-free wilderness, and it’s clear it’s the government’s responsibility to fence the cows out,” Walden said.

Walden said the fencing issue was one of the core issues in the Act, the BLM is in complete betrayal of the Act, and they never would have voted for it if the government wasn’t responsible for the fencing.

“Fourteen years later, to see what’s being proposed is wrong. It violates everything we agreed on,” Walden said.

Walden then explained that the SMAC is not getting full participation because their recommendations are not being followed, and stated that the BLM is a broken agency in that regard.

On the proposal to close another 93 miles of roads on Steens Mountain, Walden said a number of roads are legislated open, and asked, “What the heck is this?”

Perez said he is in the process of learning more about the Steens Mountain Act, and the intent of the law.

Walden asked Cain about the number of wild horses on Steens Mountain, and Cain said he didn’t have exact numbers, but there are more than 500 horses in the South Steens Herd Management Area when the appropriate management level is set around 250.

Walden asked, “What do you do if a rancher had more cows on his allotment than he was allowed?”

“We’d ask him to remove some,” Cain said.

Cain said the wild horses have access to the no-graze wilderness area, and they’re under no obligation to keep them off the no-graze area, just livestock.

Cain added that having the herd stay around a water hole, as they tend to do, can be problematic for the environment.

Perez explained that all the wild horse facilities are currently filled, and they are looking at both long- and short-term options.

The fencing issue is currently in litigation, so neither BLM representative spoke much about the topic.

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