An administrative law judge has ordered cattle removed from part of a Bureau of Land Management allotment southwest of Blanding, pending an environmental-impact study.

John Rampton, an Interior Department administrative law judge, held that the BLM violated federal law in administering the grazing permit for the 72,000-acre allotment.Rampton has barred the BLM from allowing any cattle to graze in the five canyons branching off Comb Wash until it conducts an environmental-impact study and makes a "reasoned and informed" decision that grazing cattle in the canyons serves the public good.

Conservationists who launched the battle three years ago hailed Rampton's decision as the most important grazing case in the past 15 years.

"It is definitely a slam dunk," said Tom Lustig, senior staff attorney with the National Wildlife Federation in Denver.

The group joined the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and an Arizona State University law professor, Joe Feller, in appealing a BLM decision to allow grazing in the Comb Wash canyons.

Environmentalists asked for cattle to be banned from Arch, Mule, Fish Creek, Owl Creek and Road canyons, which make up 10 percent of the grazing allotment. They asked cattle be contained to the unfenced lower pasture area, where the bulk of the forage exists.

Conservationists argued that the 350 head of cattle run by the Ute Mountain Tribe were destroying ancient Indian ruins, stream banks, vegetation, water quality, wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities.

Attorneys for the Interior Department and the ranching industry contended that the BLM complied with federal regulations and used all available grazing data.

Rampton's 35-page decision, dated Monday, said, "BLM has ignored most multiple-use values other than grazing." He was critical of the BLM for not involving non-ranchers in the process of setting stock limits.

"BLM's exclusion of affected interests was not an accident or oversight," he wrote, noting several requests from interested people to provide comments on Comb Wash grazing. "In each case, BLM responded with open defiance."

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Conservationists hope to use the decision to force environmental-impact studies.

"I'm mailing copies of this opinion to every BLM area office in the country with a note that says, `Coming soon to a grazing allotment near you,' " said Lustig.

"We are evaluating how far this goes," livestock-industry attorney Glen Davies of Salt Lake City said Thursday. "The judge clearly ignored the countervailing testimony we offered. There are two sides to this case, but you would never know it by reading his decision."

BLM officials said they had just received copies of Rampton's decision and still were evaluating it.

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