Ranchers Challenge Fines
by Scott A. Yates, Washington State Staff Writer
SPOKANE - In the four years he has administered a Washington State Department of Ecology program intended to get cattle out of Southeast Washington streams, Chad Atkin has never had to levy penalties to enforce compliance. Until now.
On Aug. 1, Ecology announced $5,000 fines against two longtime ranchers, Walter Riley, 58, owner of Riley River Ranch near Central Ferry, and Jerry Eaton, 67, owner of Eaton Ranch near Wawawai. The pair were cited for failure to fence animals out of small creeks that flow to the Snake River.
Ecology operates under the assumption that excessive grazing and feeding along streams are primary sources of water pollution from livestock in Eastern Washington. Projects to fence the streams to keep livestock out and provide alternate sources of stock water are seen as requirements to repair damaged streamside buffers.
"We do not use a traditional regulatory process unless our collaborative efforts fail, which was the case at Riley River and Eaton ranches," said Jim Bellatty, Ecology's lead water-quality manager in Eastern Washington. "Both landowners have only minimally complied with requirements, refused to accept help to get the projects done and missed important deadlines."
Both ranchers, however, questioned Ecology's move, arguing the state agency has placed unrealistic demands on them.
"They are treating us like we are on a salmon-inhibited creek, yet there is no qualifying money, because there will never be salmon in our creek," Eaton said.
He said ranchers in Garfield County have received huge grants to relocate entire feedlots. But Whitman County, where he is located, has not had the same access to funding.
"A big factor in starting a project is the money. I'm not against some of the things they are trying to do," Eaton said.
Time is the another culprit.
"We are a working family that works all the damn time. We have farmland to take care of and a mountain ranch to take care of. There just isn't any free time to do anything else," he said.
Finally, Eaton said, some of the solutions Ecology has suggested just aren't feasible. Enrolling creek buffers into the Conservation Reserve Program wouldn't work on one site because the fencing required would block access to a barn to unload hay. And putting fence on steep slopes where cattle never go anyway would only serve to hang up wildlife.
Riley also disagreed with Ecology's penalty, though he said he understands the need to fence cattle out of streams and establish alternate watering sources.
"They picked me because I'm on this highway and they are using me as an example," he said. "You need to come up here and see what we have did and see how much it has cost me and how much they have given me."
Rob Buchert, manager of the Palouse Conservation District, which includes Eaton's ranch, said as a voluntary organization it is frustrating when Ecology comes in and issues mandates. Although his agency did offer to work with the rancher, "They didn't seem interested in what we were offering."
Buchert said the conservation district has helped educate Ecology over the past four years and has eliminated some of the agency's most onerous requirements.
"I think Chad and the Department of Ecology have come a long way in meeting us halfway. We'll help, but don't harass our landowners for having a couple of cows in the crick," he said.
Atkins said the overwhelming majority of ranchers have addressed their water-quality issues, working either directly with him or through their local conservation districts to solve problems. There are, however, five to 10 ranchers coming up on a November 2005 deadline who could also face penalties if they don't implement necessary changes.
As for Eaton and Riley, Atkins said, they could face additional penalties if steps aren't taken to comply with requirements. Eaton said it makes more sense to apply the money to some of the projects Ecology is pressing to get done.
"As soon as haying season is over, I plan to get to it, but first things first on a ranch," he said.
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