PHOENIX — U.S. Forest Service officials have promised to do more to keep cattle out of more than 140 miles of the Verde River watershed.
The agreement, approved by U.S. District Court Judge David Campbell, ends a year-old lawsuit where environmental groups charged that the federal agency failed to keep and enforce its promises, going back two decades, to limit grazing to only certain portion of the river, its tributaries and stream banks.
The result, according to the Center for Biological Diversity and the Maricopa Audubon Society, was that three-fourths of the area surveyed was damaged by cattle not just trampling on vegetation but defecating in and around the water.
Now the Forest Service is promising to do certain things for the next three years, ranging from twice-yearly monitoring of areas where cattle are not supposed to be to making repairs in fencing designed to keep the animals out. Robin Silver, a co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, said it is an important victory.
“The settlement basically puts teeth into enforcement, with the Forest Service officials doing their jobs,” he told Capitol Media Services. And that, he said, is long overdue.
The dispute dates back to 1998 when the federal agency agreed to prohibit domestic livestock grazing from hundreds of miles of riparian habitats, including the Verde River watershed, while it conducted a review of the impact of grazing on threatened and endangered specials.
What ultimately resulted, Silver said, was a requirement for fences that created a T-shaped area where cattle could reach the stream “so the cows could go and trash one little area that's in a fence.” But that, Silver said, didn't happen.
One particular concern deals with Fossil Creek.
“We worked really hard to get the dam out of Fossil Creek and get it restored,” Silver said in filing suit,
“Now there’s hundreds of cows in the area,” he continued, cattle belonging to ranchers with Forest Service permits. “That's the Mazatal Wilderness.”
More to the point, all that grazing along 140 miles of the Verde and its tributaries was illegal under the terms of the 1998 agreement. Silver’s organization went out, documented the presence of cattle in the riparian area and the lack of fencing, and filed suit in federal court last year to finally gain compliance.
The problem all along, he said, has been lack of enforcement.
“It's not like the ranchers don't know that their cows were in the wrong place,” Silver said.
“The ranchers know,” he continued. “It's just they know the Forest Service never checks.”
Now, Silver said, the settlement has the signatures of the people at the Forest Service who are responsible — and can be held accountable.
The deal starts with those new monitoring requirements.
That requires the Forest Service not only to determine if cattle are in areas designated as off limits but then to work with the rancher who has the permit to determine how the animal got in there.
Then there's a mandate for the agency to make “reasonable efforts, within 48 hours” to contact the owner and provide instructions for removing the animals, typically within 72 hours after notice. And if no owner is identified, then the Forest Service “will use best efforts to safely move any cattle discovered during inspections out of excluded riparian areas.”
Minor repairs, such as busted wire or a closing gate, are supposed to be accomplished “as soon as practicable” if there is active grazing. Anything more complex, like new wire or removal of fallen trees are supposed to be done within 14 days, though that is “subject to available materials and funding.”
The deal also requires the Forest Service $12,000 to settle any claims.
This actually is the third such settlement the Forest Service has reached with the Center for Biological Diversity to do more to meet their obligation to keep cattle out of riparian areas.
One deals with the Gila River watershed which also includes the San Francisco and Blue rivers. The other is in the Black River watershed in the White Mountains.
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