Willow Flycatcher Is Just The Canary In The Mine Shaft


As a botanist who studies native plants and their habitat, I read with interest the debate over cattle grazing in the Payson/Tonto Basin area. I spend most of my days out in the field cataloging native plants, and I see firsthand the results of decades of the attitude that cattle are good for the land.

In presettlement times, fire regularly burned grasslands, enriching the soil with ashes and keeping woody plants from invading. With white settlers came fire suppression and cattle, which kept the grasses so beaten down that they could no longer carry wildfire.

The native grasses and herbaceous plants were consumed by cattle at a rate that caused them to be replaced by unpalatable woody species, such as junipers, prickly pear and broom snakeweed -- native plants that increase with overgrazing. Interesting enough, the Forest Service now has a policy of prescribed burns everywhere in the Rim country except for the grasslands where they are sorely needed.

The Endangered Species Act has provided for the protection of threatened plants and animals, and in order to force the Forest Service and other governmental agencies noted for glacially slow change from doing the right thing for the health of our public lands, some environmental groups are pressing the issue. The willow flycatcher is not the entire point of their efforts. It is just the canary in the mine shaft, an indicator of the overall health of the ecosystem. When one species fails to thrive, a domino effect can occur.

Ranching in the arid West has been in decline for some time, as it is not economically feasible to raise livestock in drought-prone areas. Economics is the driving force in this country, and whether we like it or not, economics determines the highest and best use of the land, which means whatever brings top dollar. It is clear to see what brings top dollar these days: development encouraged by the chamber of commerce.

As citizens of this beautiful area, we need to be good caretakers of our public lands. It is a shame to see piles of trash, bullet shattered trees, tire ruts through meadows, vegetation hacked up for endless fire rings, and toilet paper all over the Tonto National Forest. The great frontier is gone; this is all we have left. And at the rate our population keeps growing, we will be sharing it with a lot more people.

Austin Christensen, Payson

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