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Associated Press, Published April 10 2013

Speedy claims sought for fire-stricken ranchers

BISMARCK — North Dakota's U.S. senators are pressing the U.S. Forest Service to make speedy payments to landowners affected by a grassland fire on the Dakotas' border.

The Pautre Fire in southwestern North Dakota and northwestern South Dakota late last week began as a 130-acre controlled burn on the Grand River National Grasslands. It escaped containment due to strong winds and blackened nearly 16 square miles between Hettinger, N.D., and Lemmon, S.D.

The Forest Service has said it intends to compensate landowners for damages. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., are pushing the agency to expedite the process, and Hoeven said the agency has agreed to streamline claims.

"They also need to re-evaluate the practice of intentionally burning grasslands," Hoeven said. "Nobody knows the land better than the people who live and work on it, and in the future, the agency needs to consult with landowners about the best way to manage the grasslands."

Some area ranchers have said the Forest Service did not listen to their warnings about dry and windy conditions before starting the fire. Some say they cannot afford to pay now and be reimbursed later for repairs to damaged fences and lost hay. Grand River Grazing Association head Tim Smith said damages will exceed $1.5 million, according to The Bismarck Tribune.

Shane Penfield, state's attorney in South Dakota's Perkins County, said he also does not like the claims process because when ranchers file for reimbursement, they have to agree that the claim settles their damage. The extent of some damage won't be known for a long time, he said. For example, stress from poor feed can reduce the pregnancy rates in cows.

"A lot of (ranchers) won't know until they pregnancy-check their cows this fall, and if they're 20 percent down, then they'll know," Penfield said.

District ranger Paul Hancock said the Forest Service regrets the fire and is focusing on helping ranchers.

"We are trying to figure out what we can do. We don't have all the answers. It's harder to spend federal dollars on private land," he said.

Hancock has asked local officials for ideas on possible funding sources to tide over ranchers until federal reimbursements are made.

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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.