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‘Drowning in paperwork:' Ranchers complain to Forest Service about regulations, understaffing

Press Photo by Mike Hricik U.S. Senator John Hoeven, R-N.D., right, speaks Friday at a rancher round-table discussion with U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, left, in Dickinson.

U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell apologized on Friday for last year’s Pautre Fire, and pledged to expedite the claims process for ranchers and others who used the land.

U.S. Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., hosted Tidwell as part of a round-table discussion with grazing associations and other state officials in downtown Dickinson. Tidwell last visited North Dakota to meet with ranchers in 2011.

Forest Service workers started a controlled burn on the Dakota Prairie National Grasslands in April 2013, initially intending to burn 200 acres of dead crested wheatgrass southeast of Hettinger and southwest of Lemmon, S.D. More than 14,000 acres were burned when the fire spread out of control.

Grand River Cooperative Grazing Association President Tim Smith said it may take years for landowners to receive money back for scorched land. Some are flat-out broke, he added.

Heitkamp urged Tidwell to take action, saying legal negotiations between the Forest Service and those who lost land have become “adversarial.”

“An apology is one thing, but waiting two years for compensation is another,” Heitkamp said.

Smith called on Tidwell and legislators to permanently ban controlled burns in western North Dakota.

During a question-and-answer period, ranchers pleaded for Tidwell to cut down on Forest Service regulations and paperwork that impede their work. The service remains understaffed, “drowning in paperwork,” while not being able to do effective land monitoring, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said.

Tidwell said he is working to cut down on needless administrative work. More Forest Service money becomes devoted to fighting forest fires across the country every year, he said, eliminating staff positions.

Hoeven said his staff would work to open more Forest Service jobs to students and encourage grazing associations to help do their part.

Ranchers and officials also asked for more flexibility in managing grazing on federal lands, including a Forest Service requirement that 20 to 30 percent of pastures have a minimum of 3.5 inches of vegetation density.

“Our ranchers are not going to abuse the natural resource that forms their livelihood,” Goehring said.

Medora Grazing Association President Gordon Gerbig asked that the Forest Service allow more rancher input into the North Billings Management Plan, which will dictate grazing access for parts of the Dakota Grasslands.

“It’s not been a totally cooperative process,” Gerbig said. “It just taken a long, long time.”

Grasslands leaders have repeatedly refused to make corrections, Gerbig and Heitkamp said.

Deputy Regional Forester Dave Schmidt said more time will be allowed for rancher objections to the management plan at a meeting next week.

Other topics of discussion included freeing up more state and federal funds for ranchers for capital improvements, sage grouse conservation and exotic plant species proliferation on the grasslands.