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BLM fines conservationists over grazing permit

March 11, 2010

[Source: Rocky Barker for the Idaho Statesman]

A dispute over the lack of cattle on his group’s preserve leaves Jon Marvel in a tangle with the feds

Two conservationists were cited by the Bureau of Land Management for making false statements on grazing permit applications, and each paid $250 in fines.

But Jon Marvel of Hailey and Gordon Younger of Seattle say the charges are unfounded, said their attorney, Laird Lucas. Instead, the federal notice of violations – along with a proposed decision to cancel grazing permits on thousands of acres of federal land held by Marvel’s Western Watersheds Project and Younger’s company, Valley Sun – are an effort by the BLM to strike back after a series of successful environmental lawsuits against the agency, Lucas said.

“We are saying the BLM is treating Western Watersheds and Valley Sun in a discriminatory manner,” Lucas said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney George Breitsameter said the pair were treated the same way ranchers had been in similar circumstances.

The Western Watersheds Project has brought dozens of successful lawsuits against the BLM and other federal agencies for violating federal environmental laws in its management of grazing on public lands. The lawsuits have forced ranchers to reduce grazing and cost them many thousands of dollars to defend their operations.

Marvel has said his goal is to end grazing on federal lands to protect fish and wildlife habitat. He has prompted anger among ranchers with his rhetorical and legal attacks.

Many in the livestock industry say the tables are turning on the environmentalist.

“Mr. Marvel is expecting the ranchers to live by a different standard than he’s willing to live by himself,” said Wally Butler, range and livestock specialist for the Idaho Farm Bureau and a rancher.

Marvel’s federal case started Jan. 29 when BLM Challis Area Field Manager David Rosenkrance proposed canceling the permits for three allotments of federal land totalling 9,000 acres tied to Younger’s 432-acre ranch on the East Fork of the Salmon River near Challis. The ranch and the federal land are managed by Western Watersheds as its Greenfire Preserve.

Rosenkrance said he was proposing to cancel the permits because Younger “made false statements or representations in grazing applications.” He also said Younger had given Western Watersheds Project control of the “base property,” without filing a transfer notice in time, and that Western Watersheds had not provided the BLM with a maintenance schedule for the allotments.

Specifically, Younger wrote – in an application to leave the allotments without cattle for 2007 – that Valley Sun “is in the process of acquiring livestock,” but would like to “designate non-use for conservation purposes.”

“In the proposed decision, I basically state that they provided BLM with contradictory, baffling and false statements,” Rosenkrance said Tuesday. “I could only conclude they never intended to purchase livestock on those allotments.”

Lucas said the BLM always knew what Younger and Marvel planned. Younger had looked into buying cattle in part to meet the terms of a state lease that had been tied up in court. An appeals court said the Idaho Land Board had arbitrarily kept Younger from winning bids and had violated his civil rights.

“BLM is seizing on those partial statements to say that Valley Sun misled them into saying they were in the ranching business when everyone knew that not to be the case,” Lucas said.

After Valley Sun and Western Watersheds protested the proposed cancellation Feb. 16, BLM special agents showed up at Younger’s Seattle office to serve him with the notice of violation and to question him, Lucas said.

“I think these were outrageous tactics,” Lucas said.

He referred Younger and Marvel to Boise defense attorney David Nevin to handle the criminal charges. Younger has cancer, and because of his health and the time and cost of a full defense, the two chose to pay the fine, Nevin said.

“I don’t have any question we would have won the case,” Nevin said. “I don’t think it would have gone to trial.”

Lucas said the two men’s decision to pay the fine was not an admission of guilt.

“The citations are the equivalent of a traffic ticket,” he said.

Breitsameter neither supported nor disputed that.

“We have not taken any position one way or the other,” he said.

The BLM has not decided whether to make the cancellation final, Rosenkrance said. Lucas said he was confident his clients would win this argument, as well, if the BLM goes through with the cancellation.

The Farm Bureau’s Butler said the agency should follow through just as it would if a rancher had violated the terms of his permit.

“The BLM has compromised and buckled to Watersheds many, many times,” Butler said. “This is their opportunity, with excellent documentation, to treat (Western Watersheds) like anyone else.”

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