Subscriptions click here for 20% off! E-Mail:

Git Home!

Owyhee Canyon ©Linda Monaghan

Gettin’ Judged in Portland

Oregon cowboys go to town to fight another round in the consistent betrayal of the natural resource industries.

By Sharon Beck

Owyhee Canyon. (Photo © Linda Monaghan)

I left a little after 11 a.m. for Portland. Bob Skinner said the weather was fine and he was leaving in his airplane from Jordan Valley to Troutdale via McDermit at the same time. I joined him and his passengers, George Wilkinson and Hugh Smart, at the Troutdale airport.

When we got to downtown Portland, we drove by the new Mark O. Hatfield Federal District Courthouse so we could do a reconnaissance on the next morning’s objective. We scoped out hotel prices with Bob’s cell phone and settled on the lowest priced one with food and a watering hole close by. It was within walking distance of the courthouse.

I met them and two more Jordan Valley ranchers for breakfast at 7 the next morning. They had been up since 4 a.m., visiting, symptoms of one time zone change and calving heifers.

We spent the next two hours waiting for the 9:30 hearing time in Judge Reddon’s court on the issue of whether 54 families in the Owyhee Canyon lands would lose their grazing permits and their way of life, forever. We talked about cougars, wolves, good dogs, trichomoniasis, AMP’s, AOP’s, road conditions, cattle and country. We did not talk about the hearing.

At the courthouse we went through the metal detector and the ranchers checked their pocket knives with the guard. We were awe-struck by the white and black marble entry with two-story waterfalls in the pillars and on the wall. Huge words inscribed in stone offer dramatic phrases about JUSTICE. It did not say how much justice would cost, although the ambiance suggested plenty.

On the 15th floor in Reddon’s court is more marble, abundantly embellished with imported wood seats, tables, the bench, and trim. Can there be marble left in quarries after this? Is there a clear-cut in some rain forest to get this wood? Was there an environmentalist chained to a tree in protest?

The lawyers took their places, ours on the left, BLM’s center, Oregon Natural Desert Association’s (ONDA) on the right. Like at a wedding we sat on the left side and filled our section with ranchers from eastern Oregon communities. Sherril Anderson, whose husband Jim was claimed by the Owyhee River little more than a year ago, was there.

On the right side Bill Marlette, director of ONDA, and a few others came and went during the proceeding. I saw no mingling of the two groups, heard not a single exchange, so any other similarities to a wedding evaporated. BLM supporters got as near to the center in the back as they could.

The judge opened the proceedings by stating the issues that brought us here: ONDA was seeking an injunction against the ranchers that would force them to remove all cattle from allotments in the 186 miles of the Owyhee Wild and Scenic River corridor based on their contention that cattle were destroying the “outstandingly remarkable values” for which the river was designated. The injunction was requested to be immediate.

Heavy irony struck me that we who fought the Oregon Omnibus Wild and Scenic Rivers Act so hard over 10 years ago were now sitting in the Mark O. Hatfield Courthouse, dedicated to the senator who wrote, sponsored, and hammered through that bill with the help of environmentalists who were now suing us based on that act.

I wondered what the ex-senator was doing today as we listened to ONDA’s lawyer say that grazing “hammered” the riparian areas of the Owyhee. I wondered if he would care; what he would see if he looked into the eyes of these courageous, beleaguered few ranchers who are trying to save their livelihoods and preserve a way of life. I had written him, and all of Oregon’s 1988 congressional delegation and their current replacements, when the lawsuits started, to remind them of their promises. The fact that those rivers and streams met the criteria for Wild and Scenic after 130 years of grazing assured that grazing, using the same good management practices, would continue unchanged.

I wonder if Sen. Hatfield is proud of that act and the Endangered Species Act and others that we who make our living from the land have to deal with every day, that cost us so much. I wonder that men are honored by having their names carved on buildings and yet have left such a bitter legacy.

Would those revolutionaries who pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor be outraged that the system of governance they conceived could turn on the very citizens it was designed to serve and protect?

I want to look Mr. Hatfield in the face and say about this full blown nightmare, “Come join us in the courtroom and listen to the arguments that demean and disparage what we do on this land, that make judgments and even resort to lies about our lives, our purpose, and our intentions even though they, like you, have never seen this land let alone walked it, communed with it, read it, understood it and loved it like these few ranchers do. Come sit with me on this polished wood and feel the tension all around us caused by the knowledge that one man will decide our future based on evidence brought to him by people who care nothing about the whole truth. Hear the short release of cynical laughter when the complainant’s attorney says ranchers are not in the cattle business to make a profit anyway, and listen in disbelief as he offers the judge a compromise that would allow some of the cattle to stay on allotments that have no “areas of critical environmental concerns” for this year and then take all of them off next year which he believes would give the ranchers time to find a place to take the tens of thousands of cattle.”

I want Mr. Hatfield to remind the complainants and the judge of what he said in a letter to me: “The intent of the law is to preserve the existing character of the rivers–not to turn them into wilderness areas or withdraw them from multiple use activities.... The Forest Service’s Handbook makes it quite clear that existing practices can continue.... Although row crops are prohibited in wild river segments, grazing and hay production are allowed to the extent currently practiced.”

I want to remind Mr. Hatfield that he wrote, “I do not believe that the act represents a danger to agricultural interests, and intend to scrutinize the administration of the law (once it is enacted) to ensure that private property rights are not invaded.”

In another letter he assured me he intended “to watch closely the Forest Service and the BLM as they administer the rivers to ensure that private property rights and activities are not trampled on and abused.”

He did not answer my letter telling him how it was working.

I would remind the Hon. Les AuCoin that when he heard the Forest Service’s testimony indicate that “...designation would have little effect on day-to-day management of the river corridor” he was “confident that these statements will be born out.... If they are not, I would welcome the opportunity to hear from you again, to help resolve any conflicts you see arising.” I see a conflict, Mr. AuCoin heard from me, but he did not answer and has not helped.

The Hon. Peter DeFazio in a handwritten note said I had “received some very misleading information on the bill...grazing and ag practices are fully protected under the act.” He urged me to reread my copy of the act to help correct the misinformation I had. I did. He did not answer my letter telling him of the removal of grazing from the Donner und Blitzen wild and scenic river two years ago.

Senator Bob Packwood wrote me not long after the bill was passed.... “The law will allow...the continuation of all existing uses that are in accordance with the...Act. For instance, agricultural uses, such as grazing and farming, will not be affected by this law.” He wrote me again after I told him about the environmentalists’ Donner und Blitzen lawsuit opposing grazing. “I am shocked by your letter. I had no idea this outrageous, unfair situation had happened to you. I don’t understand it.”

Representative Denny Smith voted for the bill after getting language included that said, “The Committee recognizes that a variety of uses including, but not limited to, such activities as grazing, timber harvest, mining, agriculture, utility, transportation, and residential uses will continue to take place on private and public lands within the wild and scenic corridors.” We continue to disagree on the outcome.

Representative Ron Wyden praised the bill in the Congressional Record and assured us that our fears that the bill would be used to dispossess ranchers of long held rights on public and private land were groundless. Now he is a senator. He did not answer my letter of two years ago telling him how the environmental industries were using the 1988 Act.

Eighty-five percent of the rivers and streams proposed in the Hatfield bill were in Congressman Bob Smith’s district and he never once wavered in his opposition of the bill. He knew it would come to no good end. He attempted amendments that failed because he had no support from the rest of the Oregon congressional delegation.

So this is another chapter in a story of consistent betrayal of the natural resource industries. Every one of those people had his reasons, excuses, agendas. Once the bill was passed we began to see emphasis on words change: “protect and preserve” the outstandingly remarkable values for which the river was included in the wild and scenic designation metamorphosed into “protect and enhance” or “preserve and enhance.”

The environmental interests could no longer see a river’s wild beauty if any sign of man or man’s activities were present. They could not happily recreate if they could see a cow on a distant hillside while rafting a river and God forbid if they should see a tree stump. They attempt to convince judges that rivers and streams cannot function in the presence of livestock or timber harvest, mining or farming. They lead them away from the facts that, according to BLM assessments, show the Owyhee to be 98 percent fully functioning, two percent designated functioning-at-risk in an upward trend and zero non-functioning or in a downward trend. They avoid information that shows less than 20 percent of the entire wild and scenic river segment to be accessible at all by livestock. There is no harm to the values for which the Owyhee River was included in the bill.

As I sat in that court room I wished with a passion that I could dub over the present day arguments about the Owyhee, Senator Hatfield’s own words now a part of the Congressional Record from Oct. 7, 1988: “The act does not attempt to undo developments which are already in place, nor does it attempt to interfere with activities which already exist in the designated river area. For example, timber harvesting, mining, agriculture, grazing and the recreational uses are all grandfathered uses in the act and are allowed to continue to the extent they are currently practiced; if a rancher has cattle grazing in a designated river corridor, that grazing would be allowed to continue. In fact, with our programs designed to enhance and restore riparian areas from overgrazing, I can envision the day when it would be possible for grazing units to increase with improved riparian management.”

So many promises made, so many broken!

In fact riparian areas have improved as have whole watersheds, and all in the presence of livestock grazing, managed by these same ranchers who sit to be judged by a man who has never walked a mile in their boots. Indeed, he cannot ever walk a mile in their boots because there is no way for him to duplicate their multi-generational frame of reference, their philosophy of life, their sense of their own purpose and worth, their loyalty to what’s right and what’s good, who believe they were chosen by God to do what they do and who never expected to be judged by other than Him.

Now the hearing is over, the arguments have been made and the wait has begun. Those ranchers who flew or drove the long distance went back to their ranches where calves were being born, where signs of spring renewed hope of early grass. They got calls from their neighbors to ask about the hearing and when a decision would come about their fate.

“Our lawyers did good,” they’ll say, “don’t know how he can rule against us. No way to tell how long until he rules.”

The ranchers of the Owyhee will go on about their work but at the edge of their mind will be the judge’s impending decision. They will second guess what the lawyers said or didn’t say, they may do some what ifs, I shouldas, I wishes, but ultimately they will settle on the belief that this one man who should not have such power over their lives, but does, will rule in our favor. The alternative is unthinkable.

Sharon Beck is president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association.

Table of Contents | Git Home!

To Subscribe: Please click here for subscription or call 1-800-RANGE-4-U for a special web price

Copyright © 1998-2005 RANGE magazine
For problems or questions regarding this site, please contact Dolphin Enterprises.

last page update: 04.03.05