Heitkamp presses for improved management of Dakota Grasslands at roundtable with U.S. Forest Service chief

At a roundtable event with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Chief May 30, U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp called on the Forest Service to provide fair access for grazing in the Dakota Grasslands, continuing her efforts to support North Dakota’s ranchers.

She also requested that the Forest Service compensate ranching families that saw their property destroyed in the 2013 Pautre Wildfire near the North Dakota-South Dakota border, which she has been pressing the agency about since April 2013.

“Fair grazing access is critical to not only the health of the grasslands, but also the livelihood of ranchers and their families across our state,” said Heitkamp. “Since last spring, I’ve been pushing on the Forest Service to better protect ranchers’ grazing rights. And today, the Forest Service chief got the chance to hear directly from our ranchers about how many of the Forest Service’s policies are making it difficult for ranchers to do their jobs. Those actions include the Pautre Wildfire, a completely avoidable event which the Forest Service caused. I’m continuing to hold the Forest Service accountable to compensate ranchers for the unnecessary and devastating losses, as I’ve been doing for more than a year. Moving forward, I’ll continue to press Chief Tidwell, the Forest Service, and grazing associations to make sure North Dakota’s ranchers have what they deserve – a fair shot to succeed.”

USFS oversees the management of the Dakota Grasslands, through which many ranching families in western North Dakota run their cattle. Heitkamp and the group discussed the yet to be finalized North Billings Management Plan, which will dictate how ranchers can access grazing in the Dakota Grasslands. Heitkamp also continued to pressure the agency about last April’s Pautre Wildfire, which began near Hettinger, burned 14,000 acres in North and South Dakota, and resulted in nearly $10 million in property loss for ranchers in the region.

In March, Heitkamp called on USFS Dakota Grasslands Supervisor Dennis Neitzke to follow through and honor the commitment USFS made to prevent immediate reductions in grazing access in the North Billings Management Plan.

As a result of the Pautre Wildfire, in April 2013 Heitkamp expressed her disappointment to Tidwell and urged USFS to halt all planned controlled burns in the Dakota National Grassland until drought conditions subsided, requested a review of controlled burn policies, and called on USFS to expedite the claims process for ranchers.

She has also fought to make sure ranchers get access to livestock disaster assistance. On the heels of the devastating fall snowstorm in North Dakota that killed tens of thousands of cattle across the region, Heitkamp organized a meeting in southwest North Dakota in October 2013 to connect ranchers with livestock disaster program resources. She also fought for livestock disaster programs to be included in the recently-signed 2014 Farm Bill. In early February 2014 – after the Farm Bill passed – Heitkamp then led a group of Senators in calling on U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to expedite the implementation of these programs and just nine days later, was successful in achieving this goal, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture announcing it would begin accepting applications April 14, 2014 for livestock disaster assistance dating back to October 2011.

–Senator Heitkamp