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


Our Mismanged Public Lands
By Pat Casey

I was hired as a summer intern to help with the monitoring of riparian areas by Idaho Watersheds Project. I was in charge of three allotments within the Challis National Forest. Pictures and notes were taken while I was in the field. Both close-up and overview pictures were taken of the degraded areas.

It quickly became apparent that all of the degradation could not be photographed. There is just too much. Contrary to popular agency thought there are not just "hot spots," instead the whole range is being pillaged by livestock. The only parts of the stream that were not degraded were the inaccessible parts of the streams. If the access to the stream was too hard then the stream wasn't degraded. In all other cases the stream showed serious signs of overgrazing.

Why protect the riparian zones? The riparian zones in the west are extremely important to the quality of life for most of the species in the area. It is estimated that around 90% of the species in the arid west are totally dependent on riparian habitats. The aquatic life in the streams have an especially hard time surviving when cows are overgrazing. The cows tend to congregate around riparian zones and feed until the grass and shrubs are too short to eat. This makes erosion greater. The juvenile overstory gets eaten and the shade cover of the stream decreases. The banks slough off and also get sheared off by the cows. This makes the stream wider, shallower and hotter.

The banks become laid back and the geomorphology of the stream changes. The stream becomes less sinuous, which means that it becomes steeper and faster. (The water doesn't stay in the uplands as long.) In turn the stream loses its ability to retain its water table throughout the hot dry summer months.

The stream also has more of a tendency to down-cut in the channel due to the increased erosional forces. This means that the stream isn't capable of reaching its natural floodplain in many places. When the stream is reaching its floodplain the riparian area gets much needed sediment, nutrients and water. But when the stream is down-cut, none of these benefits can occur. Many of the streams that I looked at were down­cut to the point where they had no chance of reaching the floodplain.

In the spring the stream's fast, steep and denuded features lead to runoff speeding over the compacted and bare riparian land, if it can reach the flood­plain, which adds to the erosional effects of the stream. The stream bottom gets scrubbed free of fish habitat, the stream's banks get washed away, and the ever important water isn't around long enough to fill the water table.

What are people doing to curb this downward trend in the Challis National Forest's riparian areas? There are two groups that have the power to help right now - the ranchers and the agency people (BLM and Forest Service). The short answer to the proposed question is easy. The people who can change things are doing very little.

The ranchers can't afford to curb their public grazing numbers for one year, let alone the fifteen or infinite number that it might take to rejuvenate the area. The allotments that I looked at couldn't possibly sustain the number of cows that are presently allowed. There isn't enough grass, or acreage, to sustain them. The grazing has gone way past sustainable grazing. There is little effort to keep the cows where they should be. There are fences, but the fences do little to keep the cows where they are supposed to be. There were numerous instances where I found cows where they weren't supposed to be this summer. The fences are just expensive eyesores (taxpayer subsidy) that don't really work when they aren't being constantly maintained.

The other way to keep the cows where they should be is to hire a rider. There are two riders that are designated for the Wildhorse Allotment. These two riders are supposed to be able to keep the 1,780 cows with calves where they are supposed to be. It just isn't possible. Riders are also directly subsidized by the taxpayer. The ranchers don't pay the whole salary of the rider, so the taxpayer gets stuck with yet another direct subsidy to the livestock industry. The agencies help out the ranchers in more ways than just monetary ones.

The agencies are the other group of people who could give immediate beneficial effects to the public lands. But, there are a lot of problems with the ways that the agencies are managing their resources.

First, the allotments contain different types of land. There are BLM, National Forest, and State land on all of the allotments that I monitored. That is not the problem; the problem is that the agencies in this area do not have a common ground for regulations. Example: the BLM has different stubble height regulations (6 inches) for key areas than the Forest Service does (4 inches). Yet, there are very few fences that separate the National Forest from the BLM land. This creates a problem because there is no way to regulate cows differently on one side of an imaginary line than on the other side of the line.

Second the agencies that I dealt with didn't have the staff or support to monitor their rangeland. The Lost River Ranger District (Forest Service), until this year, had only one Range Conservationist. Now they have two. Two is better than one, but it still isn't even close to enough. When I met with the range conservationists they had a lot of excuses about quality of the degraded riparian area including their lack of staff. Since there is lack of staff within the agencies, some of the important work, like monitoring, gets overlooked.

Obviously, the shortage of people in the field leads to a greater chance of overgrazing. But the range conservationists are so busy that they don't have time to set up key areas where the riders can measure stubble height and decide when to move the cows. This means that the cows get moved whenever the rider sees fit to do so. There is no objectivity in the matter. What some ranchers see as "sustainable use" others might see as overgrazing. This is just another testament to what the agencies are doing, or not doing.

The lack of staff is starting to mean that the ranchers have more obligations when it comes to measuring stubble height too. There were many monitoring workshops given this year around the state. The monitoring workshop taught the permitees, and anyone else who wanted to learn, how to measure stubble height. There are a plethora of problems with this approach. The monitoring is only on the greenline, and only on hydric species. That means that sedges and rushes count, but Kentucky bluegrass doesn't get measured. This is a problem because most of the greenlines that I saw in this area were Kentucky bluegrass. The less palatable sedges and rushes don't get eaten with such vigor. The four inch stubble height regulation is in place in order for the banks to trap sediment and hold the banks in place during spring runoff. If the Kentucky bluegrass doesn't count when the stubble height is being measured then the majority of the streambank isn't being measured for stubble height.

Another problem with this approach to greenline monitoring is the way that the measuring takes place. During the monitoring meeting in Fairfield, Idaho this summer the instructor told the permittees that if there wasn't a key species at the front of the foot when a measurement was supposed to be taken then nothing should be written down; another stride (two steps) should be taken and measured there instead. With this measurement technique it could be possible to have a bank with one small clump of tall grass, say six inch rushes, and a dirt bank everywhere else and it would still be considered six inch stubble height. There must be a better way to portray what the stream banks actually look and function like on paper.

The third problem with the agencies is that the agencies would rather be friends with the ranchers than have to tell them what to do. I had a case where I pointed out a violation of the permittees' agreement. (The salt lick was placed too close to the stream, which leads to cattle congregation in the critical riparian area.) There should have been a written warning sent out to the permittees by the range conservationist. Instead he said that he would talk to the rancher. From what I understand this is common practice for the agency people. This way the range con doesn't have to document in writing what the ranchers are doing wrong.

Later in the summer I found a fence down, which is another violation of the permittees' agreement. In this case a "show-cause" letter should have been sent out. To the best of my knowledge nothing has been sent out. I wrote a FOIA (Freedom of Information request) letter to the Lost River Range District requesting a copy of the written letters that should have been sent out and I received nothing back.

My conclusion is that the agencies are unfit to carry out their obligations. The mixture of lack of staff, regulations and dedication leads to a serious problem on our public lands. Our lands are being ruined by the overgrazing that is taking place. The critical riparian areas are taking the brunt of the assault. The agency people are not protecting the wildlife, resources and riparian areas; they are protecting politics, people and the "western way of life." The agencies are trying to keep these marginal ranching operations afloat in order to satisfy their superiors. At the same time the public lands and their natural inhabitants are not to matter, and they definitely don't seem as important as the cows. The public land doesn't vote, and therefore must not matter. However, people are becoming wise to the fact that overgrazing is pillaging our lands.

There is no way that a person can hike in the same places that I did this summer without seeing how terrible our lands are becoming. There are numerous examples of how our lands are being destroyed by the current grazing practices. It is easy to see that the land is being ruined in these areas because there are too many cows on the land for too long. It shouldn't be that hard to fix. Solution: Significantly reduce the number of cows and the time that they spend on the range. It's not that hard; it can happen overnight.

Patrick Casey of Ketchurn Idaho is one of the top Nordic sprint ski racers in the country and is currently training in Utah for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

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