November 19, 1990 12:00 PM

When U.S. Forest Service ranger Don Oman bangs his maroon Bronco across the high desert country of Idaho’s Sawtooth National Forest, he sees dusty hilltops stripped clean of native bunchgrass by grazing sheep. Many of the streams and creeks that feed the nearby Snake River have been stomped into mud holes by cattle. Unable to survive in the resulting mud flats, the once plentiful Idaho cutthroat trout are greatly reduced. Only a few pronghorn antelope and elk remain in an area that once teemed with wildlife. Black bears, grizzlies and wolves are gone, hunted and trapped to near extinction by “predator control agents” of the U.S. Forest Service. Ranchers complained that these animals preyed on cattle, so they were eliminated—at taxpayer expense. “I’m appalled,” says Oman, 47, who was named Twin Falls district ranger five years ago. “It’s worse than any place I’ve ever seen.”

Like much of the American West’s public lands, the Sawtooth National Forest has become a giant livestock feedlot, providing grass and water for the 22,000 cattle and 66,000 sheep that roam its 2.1 million acres. In the southern part of the Sawtooth, Ranger Oman’s 320,000-acre district is crisscrossed with 800 miles of roads and barbed-wire fences, built to accommodate the powerful local cattle and sheep ranchers.

The Sawtooth isn’t an exception. Two years ago the General Accounting Office reported that half of the 250 million acres of federal lands have been badly damaged due to “poorly managed livestock grazing.” In 1989 the Forest Service spent $34.5 million maintaining grazing land throughout the country for cattlemen and took in only $10.9 million in grazing fees. Where private Idaho landowners charge about $12 per animal per month for grazing space, the U.S. Forest Service surrenders the national forest land for a mere $1.81 a head. Thirty-four privileged ranchers hold permits, passed from generation to generation, to graze livestock on the Sawtooth. “It’s cowboy welfare,” says retired Forest Service ranger Jim Prunty.

Once Oman got over his initial shock at the deplorable range conditions of the Sawtooth, he set about enforcing the terms of the ranchers’ grazing contracts with the government. He told them they must repair fences, maintain water pipes and keep their animals away from certain areas to let the delicate grasslands and aspen saplings recuperate. He also informed them that he wouldn’t tolerate keeping animals on the land longer than the contracts allowed. “I was patient with them to the point of being neglectful in my duties. I think it was the first time they ever heard the word no,” he says. “They just aren’t used to following the rules. Nobody made ’em till I came along. I just tried to do my job.”

By doing his job, Oman unwittingly has put himself in the position of point man in an old-fashioned range war, sandwiched between angry ranchers struggling to maintain a vanishing way of life and an American public increasingly aware of the environmental degradation of its patrimony. The situation came to a head a year ago when Oman received information that permit holders in the Goose Creek area had too many cattle on the range. Since Oman had already been threatened several times, he thought it wise to take some backup with him on a surprise cattle count at Piney Cabin corral, four miles from the Nevada line. “We had threats that if Oman showed up, somebody would beat him up,” says Forest Service special agent Mac Thomson.

Accompanied by two armed agents and three other rangers, Oman arrived at the corraling area and announced that he would be counting cattle to ensure the terms of the contract were met. “A guy walked up to me and exploded in my face, screaming and cussing at me,” recalls Oman. ” ‘This is our livelihood you’re messing with,’ he said.”

The count proceeded peacefully, but the tension was palpable. “It was a Gestapo raid,” fumes rancher Bert Brackett. “I think they were mad because they’d never been counted before,” observes Oman, who found no extra cows that day. “Before I left, one guy warned me to lay off. ‘Don’t make us bring the hammer down on you.’ ”

Leading the charge against Oman is Winslow Whiteley, 80-year-old patriarch of the Oakley Valley. Whiteley’s Mormon parents arrived in the valley from Provo, Utah, in 1908. Winslow was born on the 4,000 acres he still ranches, and he leases Forest Service land where he runs 1,563 head of cattle. Also a potato farmer, he is past president of the Idaho Potato Growers Association.

Whiteley’s leadership of the community is unquestioned. He is a local official in the Mormon church, and his two rancher sons, Robert and Gary, are church bishops. “Following the letter of the law is expensive,” argues Whiteley. “I want Don Oman out of here. I hope it can be done peacefully. I haven’t talked with the Secretary of Agriculture yet, but I might have a session with him if Oman isn’t moved. I know my way around Washington. I don’t need all this s—- and I don’t need him.”

At first Whiteley tried reason and minor political arm-twisting to get Oman dismissed. When that failed, Whiteley publicly suggested that cutting Oman’s throat might be the solution to the problem. The Forest Service charged Whiteley with interfering with a ranger in the performance of his duty, and he will be arraigned in federal court in Boise next week.

Whiteley agreed to speak to PEOPLE in the presence of his lawyer, who urged the old man not to discuss the touchy matter of cutting throats. Nobody, however, tells Winslow Whiteley what to say. “I didn’t threaten to cut his throat,” says the rancher. “I said if he didn’t quit, he’d have a wreck.”

A month after the infamous cattle count, the 1,200-member Idaho Cattlemen’s Assocation met for its annual convention in Idaho Falls. Members had already written to Secretary of Agriculture Clayton Yeutter demanding an investigation of Oman. Ray Hall, director of the U.S. Forest Service Range and Watershed Management for the Inter-Mountain Region—a vast 32-million-acre empire of public lands—attended the convention. Hall’s forests are dotted with 650,000 head of cattle and 450,000 sheep. Unbeknownst to Oman, his boss cut a deal: If the cattlemen would withdraw their request for an investigation, Hall promised to get rid of Oman. “They felt he was being unreasonable in his approach,” says Hall. “I did make the commitment to the cattlemen [to reassign Oman]. In my view, no one was gonna come out a winner.”

The cattlemen were elated. “We wanted him out of there, and we withdrew our request,” recalls president Bert Brackett.

Problem was, nobody told Don Oman. “I started to get suspicious in mid-January, when they offered me a couple of two-bit lateral transfers,” says the ranger. “I got curious and made some calls. I found out there was a deal, and I was it. They totally pulled the rug out from under me and sold out to the ranchers.”

Oman is as bland and unassuming as a bowl of Idaho mashed potatoes, hardly the kind of guy to make a fuss. He grew up on a ranch in Manhattan, Mont., and graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in forest management. “Ever since I was 13 and read a book about forest rangers, I wanted to be one,” he says. He joined the U.S. Forest Service in 1965 and has served with distinction in eight different forests. Married for 24 years, he and his wife, Linda, have three sons. Oman serves on the board of the Twin Falls Assembly of God Pentecostal Church, teaches Sunday school, doesn’t drink, smoke or dance, and the harshest curse he ever utters is “gosh darn it.”

The day last winter that Oman got wind of the Forest Service deal with the cattlemen, he sat up all night with Linda, discussing his options. “I didn’t want some darn other job somewhere,” he says. “I like it here, and I hadn’t done anything wrong.”

The next day, Oman picked up the telephone and called the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General. He told them he wanted to file a whistle-blower complaint against his supervisors. (Whistle-blower complaints protect federal employees from being fired or transferred while the merits of their claims are being investigated.)

Filing the complaint was the toughest thing Oman has ever done. “The agreement to move me because of my attempt to follow current direction, to prevent resource damage and to enforce requirements in grazing permits amounts to interference with a forest officer in the performance of his duties,” wrote Oman in his complaint. “I feel it may have also violated my civil rights by putting in motion actions which affect my career and family, without my knowledge or input and with no good reason. Dishonest, underhanded treatment of government employees cannot be ignored.”

After a seven-month investigation, the Office of Inspector General delivered a 330-page report on Aug. 24, determining that there was evidence to support Oman’s allegation of the secret transfer agreement between regional management and the cattle industry. The report also found Oman’s employment record to be “excellent,” his overall job performance good, and that “the resources under Mr. Oman had benefited from his administration.” It went on to say that when questioned about Oman, the ranchers “react very emotionally and have difficulty discussing it rationally or objectively…. The documented instances of threats in Mr. Oman’s complaint are real and have occurred…. Mr. Oman’s suspicion that some of the permittees [ranchers] may have been running excess numbers was well-founded.” Forest Service officials immediately executed a 180-degree reversal on the decision to transfer Oman. “There are no current plans to move Don,” says a chastened Ray Hall.

Lloyd Smith of Rupert, Idaho, a volunteer wildlife conservationist in the Sawtooth, says he chuckled to himself when Oman took on the ranchers. “Don figured he was doing his job and his bosses would back him up,” he says. “I grew up around here, so I knew better. When ranchers feel threatened, they come out blazing. They don’t understand the word ‘compromise’; they want to be left alone to do what they’ve been doing for 120 years. The American public needs to wake up. Taxpayers are subsidizing an inefficient, wasteful industry that’s destroying the American West.”

Local ranchers are still bristling over the decision. “Look,” says Bert Brackett, who raises cattle along the Nevada line, “we’re committed to sound resource management because it’s our livelihood. This is a tough issue. It’s bigger than the Don Oman incident.”

The decision hasn’t changed Winslow Whiteley’s opinion about Oman’s fate. “I’ve learned the fella doesn’t know from Shinola about cattle,” he says. “He’s using every trick he can think up to get us off the land.” Whiteley has now added the U.S. Forest Service to his Shinola list as well. “Ray Hall asked us to cool it, and we cooled it,” he fumes. “Ray said he’d move ‘im out; that’s what he told us. Well, he’s still there, and I’m disgusted.”

These days, there are parts of the Sawtooth that Oman doesn’t wander into alone, worrying that a rancher’s bullet might find the back of his head. “I don’t live in fear, but I’m careful,” he says. “We leave the lights on all night at home, and I always check under my truck in the morning.”

Standing beside a creek stomped into a mud puddle by cattle, Oman nibbles at the peanut butter and jelly sandwich Linda made him that morning. “Two hundred and fifty million Americans own this land,” he says, “and the ranchers are tearing it up. Look at the hilltops. The sheep wore them out. They killed all the aspen, sage, bunchgrass; they eat everything down to bare ground. We get hikers complaining about the manure and stink in here. It’s like a feedlot. All I ask is that the ranchers abide by the law.”

Oman neatly folds his plastic sandwich bag and places it in his pocket. “I used to believe in the system,” he says, “but now I don’t, gosh darn it.” As if on cue, a small herd of cattle crashes from a stand of lodgepole pines and splashes into the mud hole. “Shoot,” grumbles the startled ranger. “Those cows should have been out of here two weeks ago. See what I mean? Those guys do whatever they darn well please.”

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