Two environmental conservation groups filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the U.S. Forest Service and the Stanislaus National Forest it manages, claiming the federal agency has failed to enforce laws to protect streams and meadows from contamination by livestock, to protect at-risk resources from livestock trampling, chiseling and overgrazing, and to protect at-risk wildlife species.
The groups bringing the legal action are Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, based in Twain Harte, and Sierra Forest Legacy, based in El Dorado County.
John Buckley, director of CSERC in Twain Harte, said the legal action stems from a decade of communications with the Forest Service about what he calls livestock pollution of forest meadows and streams.
“It began 10 years ago,” Buckley said Tuesday afternoon. “After controversy about what we were finding in the forest, the Forest Service began an allotment-management plan for allotments east of Pinecrest. Three allotments, the Bell, the Eagle and the Herring, those three allotments make up 51,000 acres and, for the last 10 years, the Forest Service has gone through phases of doing planning.
“Over the years we have submitted countless photos and reports of meadow overgrazing, streambank pollution and damage to riparian areas,” Buckley said. “The Forest Service always thanks us for our input, sometimes agrees with us that this shouldn’t happen, they’re always very polite. But the bottom line is they’re not enforcing the law.”
Representatives for the Forest Service, Stanislaus National Forest, Tuolumne County Farm Bureau, California Farm Bureau Federation and the California Cattlemen’s Association did not respond to requests for comment. Ranchers previously interviewed by The Union Democrat have spoken out against environmental advocates in general and CSERC specifically.
The California Cattlemen’s Association has a web page devoted to “Cattle & the Environment” which states, “Ranchers are truly environmentalists at heart. As hardworking people who love working outdoors, no one cares for the land, water and air like beef producers. Environmental stewardship and best practices for green farming go hand-in-hand with managing a successful and long-term family business.”
The 20-page complaint filed Tuesday by CSERC and Sierra Forest Legacy in U.S. District Court, Eastern District of California, names Jeanne Higgins, forest superintendent, the Stanislaus National Forest and the U.S. Forest Service as defendants.
Buckley issued a news release Tuesday headlined “Forest Service Fails to Protect Public Forests from Contamination by Commercial Livestock Operations.”
In the release, Buckley says the U.S. Forest Service has allowed poorly managed grazing to pollute streams and to damage high-elevation meadows and riparian areas in the Sierra Nevada. The legal challenge from CSERC and Sierra Forest Legacy aims to reduce pollution of Stanislaus National Forest streams by livestock.
The two groups filed the lawsuit to correct what they describe as repeated violations of water quality standards in streams affected by livestock and to halt longstanding violations of the forest plan that have resulted in damage to sensitive meadows and riparian areas.
“Seven years ago we provided the Forest Service with test results from an independent laboratory that showed repeated water quality violations in forest streams flowing through areas where cattle graze for weeks at a time,” Buckley said. “Year after year we’ve shared additional evidence of pollution that poses health risks to forest visitors. And year after year, the Forest Service has shrugged off the evidence of violations — instead suggesting that recreational visitors should bring water filters when they visit.”
Poorly-managed livestock consistently degrade and trample habitat that is critical for threatened and endangered species, as well as many other kinds of wildlife, said Dr. Susan Britting, speaking on behalf of Sierra Forest Legacy.
After 10 years of agency planning for the Bell, Eagle and Herring grazing allotments, the Forest Service decided not to take any action and to allow the status quo level of livestock use to continue, Buckley and Britting said.
“That’s after receiving extensive evidence of widespread resource damage and stream pollution by livestock,” Britting said.
Livestock impacts on national forest land have been controversial for decades. Ranchers can apply for permits to bring cattle into the national forests for the summer-fall season. Cows are let loose to graze randomly, and they often concentrate along streams with lush vegetation and easy access to water.
Buckley said conservation group biologists have routinely submitted photo evidence to Stanislaus National Forest staff that show examples of “over grazed meadows, denuded and trampled riparian areas, and chiseled stream banks that are in violation of the agency’s own requirements.”
According to the California Cattlemen’s Association, ranchers today work with significantly more environmentally sustainable practices than they did 30 years ago.
Today’s farmers and ranchers raise 31 percent more beef from 30 percent fewer cattle. When compared with beef production in 1977, each pound of beef produced today produces 16 percent less carbon emissions, uses 33 percent less land and requires 12 percent less water.
According to the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, farm families across the nation practice responsible land management.
“Land preservation is essential for maintaining America’s open spaces,” a Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association web page states. “Cattle grazing stabilizes the soil and promotes growth of beneficial grasses while protecting against erosion and forest fires. Erosion control practices, including rotational grazing, brush control management and no-till farming, protects this fragile ecosystem.”
Buckley said the goal of the legal action filed Tuesday is to protect water quality, public health and at-risk resources, not to halt livestock grazing on national forest land. In the meantime, he added, federal agencies such as the Forest Service need to comply with the Clean Water Act and appropriately protect water quality.