Watersheds Messenger     Winter 2001     Vol. VIII, No. 1     PDF ISSUE

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Co-Opted by Cowboys
By Bob Phillips


Cooperation is normally a good thing, but not always. Not when you become a partner in practices harmful to the environment. That is what has happened to Trout Unlimited, The Izaak Walton League of America, and the Wildlife Management Institute, organizations one usually thinks of as environmental or conservation groups. Those named have joined with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the Public Lands Council, and the American Farm Bureau Federation in a coalition called "Summit II." Among Summit II's guiding principles is: "Properly managed livestock grazing is a legitimate use of public lands." Presumably, this will enable ranchers to thrive economically, thereby maintaining open space by discouraging conversion of private lands to ranchettes and condominiums.

First, one has to define "suitable" lands for grazing. To ranchers, every bit of forage - grass, forb and shrub - is suitable if it is accessible to livestock. Debra Donahue maintains in her 1999 book "The Western Range Revisited" (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman) that lands averaging less than 12 inches of precipitation annually are unsuitable because of the impact on biodiversity. When one factors in administrative and economic considerations, they are clearly unsuitable. Here's why. Arid lands have low capability of growing vegetation. And because of annual variation in precipitation, forage production varies by a factor of 10, as determined by studies at the Northern Great Basin Research Station some 30 miles west of Burns, Oregon.

Grazing levels are usually set for average forage production. What happens in a drought when forage is only 15% of average? Currently, what usually happens is the BLM and Forest Service land managers violate management plans and allow ranchers to abuse the land by excessive grazing. When a conscientious agency person tries to adhere to the plan, he soon hears from Washington DC to "get along" with the ranchers.

Arid lands comprise much of the Intermountain West. Cow-calf operations predominate where calves born in winter and spring are sold in the fall. Proper grazing is impossible because herd numbers have to be set in the summer BEFORE the next spring-summer grazing season begins. And forage production depends on precipitation during fall and winter months BEFORE grazing begins. Even if herds are sized for minimum forage levels, cattle congregate along streams during the hot summer months (July-September) thereby overgrazing streambanks. Heavy additional taxpayer expenditures would be needed to protect them. There is insufficient forage on the home ranch, especially in a drought, and there are no reserve lands for pasture. Of course the coalition could ask taxpayers to buy hay, but why should taxpayers increase their subsidy of welfare ranching?

A basic question: Are ranchers really preserving open space, or waiting for the right price before selling? What about developments like Black Butte Ranch west of Sisters, Oregon? These lands were once grazing lands, and now there is a golf course surrounded by condos. Was the owner trying to preserve open space but was forced to sell against his wishes? Or was the price right?

Environmental and conservation groups that are serious about protecting arid public lands should avoid entanglements like Summit II. This kind of cooperation means that you have legitimized livestock grazing on lands that are unsuitable for such use. You've been diverted from your original objective and become a partner with ranchers in grazing public lands. When you join this kind of coalition, you've been had, mister. You've been co-opted.

IWP/WWP member Bob Phillips is a retired Forest Service fisheries biologist who has been trying to get the cows out of the creek for more than 30 years. He applauds and supports IWP's success in this endeavor!


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