ST. GEORGE — The Washington County Commission held a formal meeting Tuesday and, among other actions, passed a resolution requesting the United States Forest Service stop any actions pertaining to cattle grazing in Dixie National Forest, including studies it has undertaken among other things.
The commission met in its chambers at the Washington County Administration Building at 197 E. Tabernacle Street, and addressed a proposed resolution pertaining to the forest service’s involvement in grazing issues.
U.S. Forest Service, grazing on Dixie National Forest
The County Commission passed a resolution officially requesting the forest service immediately cease actions it has been taking since 2013 pertaining to grazing on Dixie National Forest.
The forest service actions protested include the gathering of data, conducting studies and preparing reports without the county’s involvement. The resolution further protests a cooperative relationship the forest service has engaged in with Grand Canyon Trust Inc., which the commission and the Utah Association of Counties maintain constitutes an improper relationship with nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs.
In its resolution, the County Commission “respectfully requests” the forest service discard any data, studies and reports prepared without notice and involvement of the county since 2013 and that the service coordinate with Washington County in any future action from the outset.
An undated letter from Mark Ward, senior policy analyst and general counsel for the Utah Association of Counties, (responding to an Aug. 18, 2014, forest action), supports and is made a part of Washington County’s resolution. In his closing, Ward wrote to the supervisors of Dixie National, Fishlake and Manti-LeSal forests, all affected by the Aug. 18 action:
Forest Service should scrap the FS Initial Review, start over and next time, integrate NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) into the process. After all, it is the stated policy of Forest Service to ‘fully integrate NEPA requirements into agency planning and decision-making,’ … and ‘apply (NEPA procedures) to the fullest extent practicable to analyses and documentation of Forest Service actions …’
Another concern is that the forest service is coordinating very closely with nongovernmental organizations, Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson said, like the Grand Canyon Trust, in compiling data regarding cattle grazing in the Dixie, Fishlake and Manti-La Sal national forests.
These NGOs have expressed intentions to limit grazing in these areas, he said.
“They can’t cooperate with agencies like that, is our opinion,” Iverson said. “They need to open the process up and make sure it’s very transparent.”
On behalf of the Utah Association of Counties, Ward argued that the forest service’s cooperation with the NGOs and its failure to give the counties cooperating agency status was legally improper. Summing up the concern, Ward wrote in his letter to the forest supervisors:
As for intensity, the NGO’s … website says it all, ballyhooing the potential severity of change this Action may bring (with confidence befitting only an in-the-know de-facto cooperating agency) with the banner phrase: ‘The Grazing World is Changing – Three New Forest Plans.’ – Parenthetical portion Ward’s.
Washington County is entitled by law to be involved in any forest service planning or proposed changes to current land management practices beginning at their earliest stages. According to the resolution passed Tuesday, the county has not received any communication from the Forest Service regarding any studies or plan to modify grazing practices.
Dixie National Forest’s Pine Valley District Ranger Joe Rechsteiner represented the forest service at the commission meeting. He read through some talking points highlighting what the forest service has been doing.
At this time, no proposals have been made regarding the grazing within these areas, Rechsteiner said. The assessment process — which the forest service is currently conducting — is new and has confused some organizations and people who have contacted the forest service, he said.
Rechsteiner said the purpose for the process is to determine if any amendment plan is necessary. The data collected to make these decisions will not solely be collected from the organizations in question, but will also come from specialists selected by the forest service and even from some members of the ranching community.
County Commissioner Zachary Renstrom had concerns.
“I come from a little bit more of a technical background and I know that data is king,” Renstrom said, “So we’re concerned … that the deck is kind of being stacked against us.”
What the exact end-goal of the forest service in these studies is may be unclear, but that they are done in anticipation of instituting changes is apparent.
“This isn’t necessarily an effort to end grazing,” Rechsteiner said, “but to maybe change the way we do graze.”
The County Commission voted unanimously to adopt its resolution requesting the forest service abide by its requests. Iverson also said he would like the resolution to be copied and sent to Sens. Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch and Rep. Chris Stewart.
There was no representative from Grand Canyon Trust present at the commission meeting.
In other business the Washington County Commission unanimously voted to adopt a resolution to approve a cooperative agreement between Washington County and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
This resolution allows the county to supplement the agency with funds that go towards: monitoring the threatened desert tortoise; conducting an inventory and survey of Southwestern Willow Flycatcher nests; and an allowance to fund any backup assistance from DWR should the county need additional help.
Washington County Public Works Director, Ron Whitehead, addressed the commission regarding rehabilitation work being done on Shem Dam.
The dam was damaged after some floods in September, 2014, Whitehead said, and is in need of immediate repairs. Construction on the project began Tuesday and is expected to continue on for an estimated 109 days.
After getting the commissioners blessing for the project, Whitehead said he urges the public to use caution when traveling along Gunlock Road near Shem Dam during the construction period. Multiple trucks will be moving large amounts of sediment and other debris from the area, so people should keep an eye out for heavy equipment when driving.
“If they need to travel the road, be cautious,” Whitehead said. “Watch for those trucks entering and exiting the highway so we don’t have any problems with accidents along that way.
The next Washington County Commission meeting will be held on Feb. 3 in the commission chambers at 4 p.m. The meeting is open and members of the public are urged to attend if they wish.
St. George News Editor-in-Chief Joyce Kuzmanic contributed to this report.
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