NORTHERN UTAH -- Three ranchers in northern Utah are in deep trouble for building a fence and cutting a swath, as much as 65 feet wide in some parts, through a National Forest.
The U.S. Forest Service has already punished the ranchers by taking away half their grazing privileges. Now, a law enforcement investigation is underway.
The fence runs three and a half miles through the national forest west of Bear Lake.
"I think it's egregious, and something went wrong," says Kirk Robinson, with the Western Wildlife Conservancy.
It's a so-called "laydown" fence, designed so cowboys can tip the barbed wire down and lay it flat each winter to protect it from snow damage.
"It's a lot of labor for us," says Round Valley rancher Stuart Wamsley, adding that he would have preferred not to build the fence.
Wamsley says he and two partners were pushed to do it by the Forest Service. The fence divides their grazing permit area, so cattle will use alternating pastures each grazing season, giving vegetation a chance to recover.
"It was at their insistence that we went ahead and put this fence in," Wamsley says.
But the Forest Service says it bulldozed an excessive swath. Environmental and wildlife groups are outraged. They say the cut averages 40 to 65 feet wide.
"My concern is soil erosion and the time it will take to recover, which I believe will be a long time. There were a lot of mature trees in here," Robinson says.
Wamsley says they took out mostly brush and small trees. They flattened a space to lay down the fence, with extra width for ranch vehicles to maintain it.
"We did everything in our power to avoid those big, pretty, mature trees," Wamsley says.
One issue is why they didn't follow an existing fence line cut in the 1960s. They say the Caterpillar got into that area and almost got stuck in the soft ground, so they decided to angle the new fence a little bit more to the north.
The ranchers departed from the route approved by the Forest Service. Getting a new route approved, they say, would have taken months of biological and archaeological reviews. Wamsley says they pushed on without specific approval because they didn't want to go through the process.
"It's just completely ridiculous, the process they have," Wamsley says.
Regardless of the route, the Forest Service and critics say the swath cutting went way too far.
"ATV use will be invited by this. Essentially, that amounts to a new road, even though it wasn't intended as one, and it will exacerbate the problem," Robinson says.
KSL News isn't sure if the law enforcement investigation is leading to possible criminal charges, but Wamsley told us the Forest Service told him he's in deep trouble.