Greenback Valley rancher Bill Conway, who is among a number of Rim country cattlemen struggling to keep livestock on federal land, may have found some allies in his disagreement with the U.S. Forest Service and its methods of determining the number of cattle allowed to graze on his allotment of federal land.
This Friday, Conway and Jim Sprinkle -- an area extension agent for the University of Arizona cooperative extension as well as the holder of a Ph.D. in animal nutrition -- will meet with Forest Service officials to present Sprinkle's own scientific analysis of Conway's allotment.
Sprinkle said a number of his conclusions run contrary to those of the Forest Service's range scientists.
Additionally, the Forest Service's deductions regarding the Conway allotment have been included in a statewide investigation of similar rancher/Forest Service disagreements by a Governor's Task Force headed by Joe Lane, associate director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture.
Sprinkle said he spent two days on Conway's allotment, studying grazing patterns and forage conditions, at the mutual invitation of Conway and the Forest Service.
"There's no question there's some problems on that allotment," Sprinkle said. "Even Bill Conway will acknowledge that. Most of them are grazing distribution problems -- meaning that cattle regularly congregate in areas where you don't want them to be all the time."
Thus far, the Forest Service's proposals to remedy that problem have been to reduce the number of cattle Conway is permitted to graze on the land -- from 285 to 100, or perhaps zero.
Sprinkle thinks there is another solution.
"These problems can be solved by putting in fences and water developments to control where you want the cattle to go," he said. "Fence (the problem areas) off and give them a reasonable amount of time to respond on their own. If that doesn't happen, then (the Forest Service can) look at other options."
In Sprinkle's view, the land would regenerate within five or six years. The Forest Service, however, has said the renewal would take from 30 to 35 years.
"I really think that if everyone was willing to work together -- and if there could be money found for range improvements -- a lot of the problems on the Conway allotment could be addressed," Sprinkle said.
Forest Service officials maintain, however, that limiting the number of cattle on the land or removing them altogether is the only course of action that will allow the land to restore itself.
The Forest Service is paying much more attention to land management than it has in the past, Eddie Alford, the group leader for biological resources on the Tonto National Forest, has said.
"We let some of that slide by in the past," Alford said in an earlier interview, "but today there are more people holding our feet to the fire as far as complying with the law."
The governor's task force -- the Governor's Rangeland Technical Review Council -- led by Joe Lane, is an ad hoc group of game and livestock professionals. It was formed in December to study all six of Arizona's national forests, Lane said, because Governor Jane Hull "has had a lot of complaints by the livestock industry about some of the Forest Service's methods" of analyzing grazing data.
Lane was appointed chairman of the 13-member council, which includes five Ph.D.s, four of whom are range scientists and one is a wildlife specialist; one environmentalist; three representatives of sportsman's groups; and one State Land Department representative.
The council has already been to the Coronado National Forest near Tucson, and the Tonto is No. 2.
"We pick one ranch that is pretty representative in each forest, that has typical problems of other ranches in the area, so we can be as fair as we can," Lane said. "I talked to a number of people in the Tonto area, and all of them kept talking about the Conway's allotment and the problems they were having. So that's why I called Bill Conway and asked if it was all right if we took a look at it."
The project will be completed by July, Lane predicted. "At that time we'll sit down with our Ph.D.s and write a summary of what we found in all the forests, the things we agree or disagree with the Forest Service on, recommendations from our point of view on how they ought to model their carrying capacity estimates.
"We're out here to prove, one way or another, whether we're getting a straight look at these problems or not."
Ranchers hoping that the task force will prove to be a magic-bullet cure-all will be disappointed, Lane said.
"The state government has no clout with the Forest Service, other than we've got the bully pulpit ...
But I think that before (the Forest Service does) anything with Bill Conway or any other permitee up there, they're going to have to very carefully justify every action they're taking. They know that we're watching them, and I suspect that if they are going to make a cut or any major changes on anybody's permit, they're going to have to justify it like you can't believe."
"I'm not accusing anybody in this particular case, but a lot of times in the past, they've made decisions based on partial information," Lane said. "What we're saying now is, if you're going to do something, you'd better be able to justify it top, bottom, left and right. This will make them much more cautious about arbitrary cuts."