September 30, 2006

Salt Lake Tribune

Grazing ruling a blow to counties

By Joe Baird

A pair of southern Utah counties haves lost another - and perhaps decisive - round in their challenge of grazing permits held by a conservation group in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell on Friday ruled that Kane and Garfield counties failed to prove economic harm from the Bureau of Land Management's sale of monument grazing permits to the Grand Canyon Trust seven years ago, and thus lacked standing to continue pressing their lawsuit against the agency.

"The counties could not prove actual injury. They couldn't really say how they were hurt by what happened," said Grand Canyon Trust executive director Bill Hedden. "And what the counties did present was set aside by the judge because of its highly speculative nature."

Earlier this year, an administrative law judge rejected protests the county had lodged with the Interior Department over the permit sales. Coupled with Friday's decision, the counties' challenge has taken a decidedly uphill turn. And it might just be over.

"I'm not sure what our course of action will be at this point," said Kane County Commissioner Mark Habbeshaw. "I expect we can appeal the decision on standing, but whether that's the best way to go, I don't know."

Campbell did allow several ranchers to proceed with their claims and gave two others a chance to amend their complaints to rejoin the suit.

But in a 12-page ruling, Campbell said the counties failed to document "redressable injury," dismissing claims of lost property values and sales tax revenues as "nebulous at best" and "insufficient to confer standing in a suit against the federal government."

The Grand Canyon Trust, based in Flagstaff, Ariz., and Moab, spent $1.5 million to purchase about 350,000 acres worth of monument grazing permits from 1999 to 2001 in what were deemed environmentally sensitive areas.

The group originally intended to retire the permits, but it began purchasing and grazing a minimal number of cattle when the Bureau of Land Management declared the permits at least temporarily open, pending the completion of a land-use plan.

The counties have challenged the trust's qualification to hold grazing permits as a nonranching entity, and claimed the environmental group had offered to relinquish the permits, which would have allowed other applicants to file for them.

In a bid to document evidence of economic harm, Habbeshaw and Garfield County Commissioner Maloy Dodds filed affidavits claiming that the BLM's actions would reduce property values by $750,000 and cost the counties $170,000 in lost sales tax revenues. The two commissioners also claimed that such losses would hinder the counties in meeting their budget obligations.

But Campbell said such calculations of potential harm were not enough to justify a claim.

"It's disappointing," said Habbeshaw. "Environmental organizations seem to be able to gain standing in these issues because their enjoyment of hiking may be harmed. But when a county tries to protect a valued agriculture industry, it's found to lack standing to protect those interests. It may be legally equitable, but its not equitable in a societal sense."

The county has largely financed its grazing challenges with state money provided by the Legislature. That total now is around $122,000.

Hedden wonders how much more, if any money, the state is willing to spend.

"It'll be interesting to see what happens if there is no longer state money," he said. "I can't see these ranchers spending their own money, but I've been wrong before."