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U.S. Forest Service chief to meet with North Dakota ranchers

DICKINSON, N.D. -- Ranchers from southwest North Dakota with “burning” questions for the U.S. Forest Service will get the chance to discuss concerns with its top leader at the end of the month.

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., will host a roundtable discussion with Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell in Dickinson on May 30. The Strom Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation will host the discussion.

Hoeven and Tidwell plan to address questions mainly from grazing associations and individual ranchers about ranching management practices on the Little Missouri National Grasslands.

“We’re going to look around and talk to our grazers a little bit,” Hoeven said.

Leasing space on the grasslands has become a contentious issue as the Forest Service tries to balance demands from other entities, such as oil companies, Forest Service District Ranger Roger Jablonski said.

The Medora Grazing Association and McKenzie County Grazing Association are expected to attend the discussion, according to their offices.

Hoeven said he will discuss bringing in third-party mediators for grazing agreements with Tidwell.

Other topics will include the environmental impact statement for the North Billings Allotment Management Plan Revision and controlled burns on grasslands.

The allotment plan revision, released last December by the Forest Service, dictated new rules as to where and how ranchers can graze in north Billings County and a small portion of northeast Golden Valley County. A comprehensive environmental impact plan, released in 2009, served as the basis for the allotment revisions.

In a statement, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said she has pressed the Forest Service to amend the allotment management plan to allow more space for ranchers.

“Grazing not only improves the health of the grasslands, but it’s also crucial for the livelihood of ranchers and their families across the state,” Heitkamp said. “Making sure the U.S Forest Service providers our ranchers with fair grazing rights is essential.”

Hoeven said he would also like to see the Forest Service give more credit to North Dakota State University grasslands management research, which often has sided with rancher interests.

Some have called for tighter rules for Forest Service burns following last summer’s Pautre Wildfire in northern South Dakota, which started as a prescribed fire but burned 14,000 acres of grasslands, Jablonski said.

“There are still fundamental philosophical differences within the state with regard to prescribed fire,” Jablonski said.

The Forest Service’s top official last traveled to North Dakota to discuss ranching in 2011. Tidwell was traveling Tuesday and could not be reached.