Raftopoulos, environmental group butt heads

Family says appeal could mean the end of the ranching


A group that aims to end grazing on public lands recently filed objections to livestock grazing permits for more than 370,000 acres of BLM land in Moffat and Routt counties, including permits sought by a Moffat County commissioner's family.

The Western Watersheds Project, previously called the Idaho Watersheds Project, filed an appeal and petition on Jan. 29 for stay against 30 allotments held by the Raftopoulos family.

The group filed in partnership with Sinapu, a non-profit conservation group from Boulder dedicated to the protection and restoration of native animals in Colorado.

"Our long-term goal is to phase out incompatible uses of public land," said Keith Raether, director of public information with the Western Watersheds Project. "We feel grazing has time and again proven to be an incompatible use of public land."

The appeal and petition for stay is aimed at the Bureau of Land Management and the ranching industry, Raether said.

"It's aimed at both because of the BLM's failure to comply with its own resource management plan," Raether said. "I say this because of the fact that the BLM has catalogued in its own reports observations that speak to the damage caused by livestock grazing."

The action against the BLM and Raftopoulos family is the first legal action taken by the Western Watersheds Project in Colorado.

The Watersheds Project has taken similar action in Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona.

Steve Raftopoulos said his family was surprised when the Idaho-based group filed an appeal in Northwest Colorado.

"The sad part of this is we have a good relationship with the BLM," Raftopoulos said. "These allotments aren't hurt. There were planned improvements in the new permit that will make the land better."

Raftopoulos said the Western Watersheds Project was not involved in the renewal process and said they don't know the condition of the land.

"They're just trying to get livestock off of all public land," he said.

David Blackstun, the supervisory natural resources specialist with the BLM, said the BLM was not surprised when the Western Watersheds Project filed.

Last September he said the group made contact with Sinapu, and shortly thereafter filed a request for interested part status.

"When they filed for interested party status we knew they would become active," he said. "We anticipated that it was going to come when we issued the permits."

Blackstun said the BLM is currently awaiting a determination by the Interior Board of Land Appeals to grant or deny the stay and under what conditions.

The board has four options, Blackstun said.

It can:

remain silent.

grant the stay.

grant the stay with conditions different than requested.

deny the stay.

Blackstun said in granting the permits the BLM was doing its job and the Western Watersheds Project had every right to appeal the permit renewals.

"In renewing permits on land allotments, it is our decision whether or not to renew them," Blackstun said. "The decision is appealable by anybody. That's what Watershed did."

Blackstun said the Western Watersheds Project has one goal in mind, and if successful, that goal would damage the businesses of many ranchers.

"They have a publicly stated objective to remove all livestock from public land," Blackstun said. "If the judge were to grant this appeal and petition for stay it would have a dramatic impact on the Raftopoulos family."

Steve Raftopoulos agreed.

"It would drive us out of business," he said. "Every livestock operation relies on public land."

Raftopoulos said if the group accomplished its goal it would have the opposite effect of what it thinks it will accomplish.

"They ought to be trying to keep agricultural land alive because then the natural features of the land are preserved," he said. "If they drive agriculture operations out of business, what happens next is the land gets sold for development."

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