Oregon is watching filings in federal courts of lawsuits challenging the Records of Decision of land use plans by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service intended to conserve key sagebrush habitat, address threats to the greater sage grouse, and permit sustainable economic development. The plans helped the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to conclude that the sage grouse no longer warrants protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. The “not warranted” finding gave counties, residents, agencies, and other stakeholders in the 165 million acres and 11 states of sage grouse habitat the flexibility to devise protection plans that fit local circumstances best. The final plans had to be adopted by the two federal land management agencies. Not all local efforts were successful or pleasing to all stakeholders, as shown by federal suits against the plans in Utah, Wyoming (including Colorado), Idaho, Nevada, and even the District of Columbia Circuit Court (where Idaho Governor Butch Otter preferred to argue his case). Several environmental groups are aiming to overturn the USFWS “not warranted” finding. Some producer organizations find the plans too restrictive and top-down.
In Oregon, the story has been different. After years of difficult work – and the innovated approach by Harney County Judge Steve Grasty to use Oregon’s statewide land use planning system as sword and shield – ranchers, County Judges and Commissioners, state and federal agencies, and other interests developed a State Action Plan that addresses wildfire risks and grazing practices. At the moment, these parties are fully into plan implementation, with an eye to protect the plan from being misused to impose restrictions not intended.
As Judge Grasty puts it: “This state has worked hard with county government to set a plan that works for rural communities. The citizens of Harney County invested tens of thousands of hours into setting a conservation agreement that protects and sustains ranching operations while at the same time protecting sage grouse habitat. I invested more than 3,500 hours into the state and federal effort to stave off a federal listing of sage grouse. While the end product is far from perfect we did succeed in preventing that listing. Our state set the standard for a plan that works for communities and for the environment.”
There is a U.S. Department of Interior work group on implementation, working on mitigation measures on federal lands. Governor Kate Brown’s Natural Resources Advisor Brett Brownscombe reports that other states are involved in the work group, which is issuing “structural memoranda” to guide implementation. He describes the principal concerns of the Governor’s Office as protecting the state action plan and state interests, which at the moment do not require litigation. He notes that they are fully aware of and following developments in the courtrooms.