Agency wants cows out of Meiss Meadow |

Agency wants cows out of Meiss Meadow

The Forest Service is proposing a partial ban on cows in a 12,000-acre meadow in order to protect water quality.

The Meiss Meadows, located south of Lake Tahoe, has repeatedly failed fecal coliform tests.

The action, which would reduce the number of cattle allowed there by as much as 75 percent, is somewhat of an about-face for the Forest Service. A few months ago the agency was circulating a draft environmental document that called for continued grazing. However, results of summer 1999 tests became available late last year, showing that, despite new management techniques, the grazing allotment again failed to meet water quality standards.

The two California ranch families which graze as many as 800 head of cattle at Meiss Meadows each summer have until early next month to come up with an alternative plan that might let them keep more cows there.

“We’re taking the action based on resource concerns, mainly water quality. Fecal coliform standards were exceeded by about 4,000 percent over the last season,” said Jeff Reiner of the Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. “All the data collected since (the early 1990s) shows that in all the years livestock were present, the fecal coliform standard applied by Lahontan has been exceeded.”

Meiss Meadows has been used for grazing since 1868. Several small lakes and streams exist in the meadows, and, with both the Tahoe Rim Trail and Pacific Crest Trail running through it, the area is a popular hiking spot. A historic working-ranch cabin is there, too.

The Upper Truckee River, Tahoe’s largest tributary, starts in the meadow at an elevation of more than 8,000 feet. The river and lakes there contain the only self-supporting population of Lahontan cutthroat trout in the Tahoe Basin.

The land is owned by the Forest Service, which leases it for grazing.

Livestock grazing has long been a contentious issue at Tahoe, where it is believed cattle impact the water quality of the streams running into the lake because of pathogens from manure and because of sediment sent downstream from the cattle’s trampling of banks and stream beds.

Grazing at Meiss Meadows in particular has been the focus of significant Sierra Nevada-wide attention in recent months because there is concern that what is happening there may have repercussions throughout the mountain range.

Lahontan, the California regional water quality control board for Tahoe and much of the Sierra, has a fecal coliform standard that is 10 times more stringent than U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or other state regulations. After several years’ worth of fecal coliform violations, Lahontan last year ordered the Forest Service to address the problem.

However, if cattle are prohibited from the meadow, the families who use the area for summer grazing may have to sell their ranches in the Sierra foothills, which could lead to more development along the West Slope.

This is one of the first times Lahontan has aggressively enforced the standard. And if Meiss Meadows permitees lose their ranches, there is a fear that those consequences could be replicated throughout Lahontan’s 33,000-square-mile jurisdiction.

The California Cattleman’s Association has been working with the permitees to establish some viable alternatives to the cattle prohibition. Association officials are concerned no grazing operation could meet Lahontan’s tough standards.

“We’ve met with the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, and they were open to some of our suggestions. Hopefully, we’ll meet with the Forest Service, too,” said Pat Blacklock, director of administration and policy affairs for the Cattleman’s Association. “There are certainly a lot of other options out there that haven’t been tried yet. We certainly hope we can use some of them, considering this is a test-run case for the state.”

Meiss Meadows has two main pastures: the 2,500-acre Big Meadow and 9,500-acre Dardenelles Meadow. Two hundred cow/calf pairs – up to 400 head of cattle – can graze on each meadow. The Forest Service’s new proposal calls for the elimination of all cattle from Big Meadow and half from Dardanelles. The proposal also shortens the time the cows will be allowed in the meadows.

Depending on the permitees’ proposals, the prohibition could go into effect before summer.

“We think it’s a good first step,” said Lauri Kemper, chief of Lahontan’s Tahoe unit. “We don’t know if they can still meet the standard with those numbers, but it’s a good enough gesture for us to say, ‘OK, you can have those cattle out there for another season. If you don’t meet the standard after that, you’re going to have to do something else.’

“If they had said they would reduce the numbers 25 percent, we probably would have said that’s not good enough, because they were exceeding the standard significantly.”

Lahontan, the California Attorney General’s Office, California Department of Fish and Game and League to Save Lake Tahoe were critical of the environmental document the Forest Service was circulating last year.

Dave Roberts, assistant executive director of the League, said regardless of the discussions going on between the federal agency and the Forest Service, a new environmental assessment would be needed. At this point, although it is public land, the public has not been involved in the planning process.

And, Roberts said, there are other concerns beyond fecal coliform violations, such as the cattle’s causing stream-bank erosion, hurting the Lahontan cutthroat trout population and damaging other wildlife habitat.

“Without having environmental documentation that analyzes the management strategy specifically, it’s all speculation,” Roberts said. “It’s speculation by us, it’s speculation by the Forest Service and it’s certainly speculation by the permitees.”

The League has long urged removing all the cows at Meiss, and Roberts said officials shouldn’t look at the situation in the context that it could have statewide implications.

“That’s the wrong perspective for them to be looking from,” Roberts said. “Tahoe is a very special place.”

While there are a number of ways cows can impact water quality, Lahontan focuses on fecal coliform – a measurement of the amount of feces in the water – as an indicator of what is happening. Since 1991, the years cows grazed there have resulted in violations; in years with no summer grazing, there were no violations.

One of the concerns about grazing is cows trampling stream banks.

optional breakout

fecal coliform tests for Meiss Meadows

1991 – grazing – violation

1992 – no tests

1993 – grazing – violation

1994 – no grazing – no violation

1995 – no grazing – no violation

1996 – grazing – violation

1997 – grazing – violation

1998 – no tests

1999 – grazing – violation

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