Public Lands Ranching: What Price Obstinence?
By Don Oman
As many of you know, I worked for the U.S. Forest Service for 35 years before retiring two years ago. I was the district ranger for Twin Falls Ranger District, Sawtooth National Forest, from October 1986 to May 1996. Following that, I was the ecosystem staff officer for SNF for three years.
In my career with the Forest Service, I worked on 12 national forests in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah. Since my formal schooling was in forest management, I worked with the range management folks frequently but was never in charge of a large range program until coming to Twin Falls. I had complained about grazing abuses on the Forest Service districts where I worked, but I never saw things change much, if at all. In the course of working in recreation, watersheds, soils, wildlife, fisheries, timber, special uses, minerals and fire, I got a few chances to take matters into my own hands.
One of six resources I was in charge of on the Wallace Ranger District, Idaho Panhandle National Forest, was recreation. Grazing on the district was not permitted because most of the area was heavily forested. We had a large day-use recreation development that served 300 visitors, with large cooking shelters and several family sites. The area was mostly meadow, which a neighbor’s dozen cows about a mile away had discovered. These cows continually tramped holes in the meadow, grazed it off and littered the meadow and the large group sites (concrete under large roofs) with excrement.
Repeated attempts to get the owner to keep them away failed. Threats to trespass them failed. Since some of the cattle were fairly tame, we sauntered up to them one day in the recreation site and spray-painted huge US’s on the sides of four cows and yearlings. We then ran them down the road — again. They never came back. We decided the owner must have figured that if we could paint them, we could catch them.
While stationed on the Hoback Ranger District, BridgerTeton National Forest at Jackson, Wyoming, we had constant trouble with regenerating timber-cutting areas damaged by cattle. The main source of the problem was ranchers who were salting in these cutting units. The cattle trampled young trees, and larger trees were skinned and broken from rubbing.
Repeated attempts to get the range conservationists to make the permittees salt away from these areas failed. One day, my two timber people and I went separate ways picking up salt blocks that were in or adjacent to cutting units. We came back with 37 blocks. We dumped them in the yard at the Forest Service compound and told the range conservationists that this would be our standard practice in the future. That ended the problem, and mysteriously the new lodgepole pines began to grow straight and tall.
As district ranger on the Twin Falls Ranger District, I was finally in a position to do something about grazing abuse on this 320,000-acre piece of public land. I had a lot to learn about the range resource, but even I could tell the difference between tall grass and bare dirt! I quickly learned from my forest supervisor and forest range staff officer that it was not cool to use terms (relating to livestock grazing) such as rototilled, plowed, devastated, destroyed or nuked. My two very experienced range conservationists advised me that the very strongest term we could use was “heavily used.”
I had two very experienced range conservationists in Ralph Jenkins and Ray Neiwert (both now retired), who wanted to see the rangelands and creeks managed properly. However, they had worked most of their careers for managers who knew how things had to be done in order to survive politically. One of the best compliments ever paid to me came from Ralph and Ray after we had been through years of battles (many of which we won), to improve livestock management practices on the Twin Falls Ranger District. They told me that only in the final few years of their careers were they able to practice proper range and riparian management.
During my 10 years on Twin Falls Ranger District, one of my strongest allies was Jon Marvel and the Idaho Watersheds Project (now Western Watersheds Project). Jon came to my aid and worked effectively behind the scenes a number of times.
Later, as ecosystems staff officer, I had little influence with the forest supervisor when it came to the range resource, even though I was his primary staff officer for this and most other resources. My recommendations took a back seat to the advice of rangers, and in one case, the preferential treatment resulted in severe, widespread resource damage. During that time, Jon often had advice for me that I could do little about.
With improved management and 10 years of persistence, streams went into winter with heavy sedge and willow cover to protect them. Watercress increased again. Willow, aspen and cottonwood sprouts were abundant, forming large stands of young shrubs and trees. The vegetation in streams caught sediment and formed new banks, narrowing and deepening the water. Deep-rooted sedges began replacing shallow-rooted bluegrass along streams, creating stable, overhanging banks for better trout habitat. Beavers increased, quickly raising water tables in many streams.
When I left Twin Falls, all riparian areas were improving, many of them dramatically. The next year conditions deteriorated quickly, and even with numerous reports and photos as evidence, the ranger who took over was allowed to do things “his way.” That fall, I saw creeks that had been in dramatic recovery for five or six years taken back to what they were when I first saw them in the fall of 1986 – rototilled, plowed, devastated, destroyed and nuked. The range conservationists in authority, who wanted to practice good management, quickly found that the permittees and their political patsies were again in charge.
For roughly 130 years, livestock grazing has degraded the lands in this area. On the Twin Falls Ranger District, I saw the devastation. In the early days, this general area was grazed by 175,000 cattle and 80,000 sheep, with no control and no season of use except heavy snow. Travel up the South Fork Shoshone Creek and you will see large areas of exposed bedrock as a result of this “heavy use.” The huge numbers of animals compacted the soil and removed all vegetation where near water. Erosion did the rest.
Virtually every creek on the district was down-cut from 5 to 30 feet as a result of livestock grazing. These down-cut streams drained thousands of acres of wet meadow and turned them into dry, sagebrush flats. Heavy grazing removed willow, cottonwood and aspen sprouts, leaving only old, decadent or dead remnants in many drainages.
With the evidence of 130 years of abuse and degradation from grazing so evident, it didn’t seem much of a mystery to us on the Twin Falls Ranger District that the continual damage had to end. How can we provide for the resource needs and enjoyment of future generations if we continue to degrade the rangelands and riparian areas that we have been entrusted by the public to manage? If so much damage could be done in 130 years, just think what things would be like in another 200 years of current management?
Any public land manager is not doing his or her job if the resources of water, soil, wildlife, fish, recreation and scenic beauty do not improve under their control. The downward trend has to end. No activity should take place on the public’s lands unless those resources can be improved. To do otherwise permanently closes options for the future.
When I first came to the Sawtooth National Forest in 1986, there was little public concern about livestock grazing on public lands. Public lands permittees ran the show, backed by powerful political allies. Now the public is becoming much more aware of, and concerned about, these problems. Organized groups such as WWP are doing wonders to educate the public through information, litigation and media attention. Nearly every week news articles appear on the issue of public-lands livestock grazing.
Where once the permittees ruled public rangelands, they are now very worried. You’d think they would be smart enough to change their operations to restore and protect public resources, even if federal land managers don’t have the guts to insist on compliance.
I guess they’re hoping all of us will go away so they can perpetuate the status quo. If so, they won’t realize their mistake until they have lost it all.
Article available in PDF (2001) from Western Watersheds Project: https://www.westernwatersheds.org/watmess/watmess_2001/summer_2001.pdf