Governor's Task Force Intervenes In Ranching Dispute

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While one Rim country rancher's complaints about the U.S. Forest Service's methods of slashing cattle-grazing permits are reviewed by a governor's task force, two Tonto Basin ranchers have been ordered to remove all cattle from the 130,000 acres of federally owned grazing lands their families have been using since the 1860s.


In the latest volley fired in the war engaging south Gila County's cattlemen, the Forest Service, and environmentalists, neighboring Tonto Basin ranchers George Ewing and Steve Cline were given until May 1 to comply with the removal order.


In separate interviews, the ranchers had identical responses when asked what the action meant: "It means we're out of business."


From the Forest Service side, the decision was pretty much business as usual, said Eddie Alford, the group leader for biological resources on the Tonto National Forest.


"It was part of the annual operating plan for this year," Alford said. "It has to do with the drought we've had for the past four or five years, which has led to declining forage (grasses upon which cattle graze) production. For the long-term productivity of the land, we've got to somehow take some of the pressure off to allow recovery when it does rain."


The cattlemen see things differently.

"The Forest Service is like what I suspect the Bolsheviks were like in 1917," Cline said. "They probably mean to do well, but they don't want to hear that they may be wrong in their thinking.


"We've had bad droughts and lived through them before," he said. "In fact, last year in the fall in our high country, we raised an excess of feed. It is a matter of record that we had the third-best summer range in Gila County -- and possibly in Arizona -- in recorded history.


"They (studied) only three small areas of my range land, so I feel this is a bad rap," Cline said. "Why can't we just remove cattle from the areas they specified? There's a number of ways we could address the problems, but they aren't working with me in any way on it."


Cline's claim of a limited study of his rangeland is "not what I heard from the district," Alford said. "The district rangers (Tina Terrell and Lenny Warren) made the decision based on overall use."


For the moment, all such arguments are moot as Ewing and Cline face their newest problem.

"It's physically impossible to get all our cows off the land by May 1," said Ewing, one of the ranchers profiled in the Roundup's two-part "Ranch Wars" series of early February.


Ewing said the Forest Service order is temporary -- but in an extremely vague sense of the word.


"They have given us no time frame, they have no data that says what (land improvements) must occur before we can come back. We don't know if we're going to be off one year, two years, five years..."


Neither does Eddie Alford. He says the removal will last "until conditions change with the drought and the forage has had time to recover." He says there is no telling when that might occur.


Another rancher-Forest Service dispute now has drawn the governor's office into the story. On Feb. 1, when the Roundup first reported that Greenback Valley rancher Bill Conway was having problems meeting the Forest Service's environmental demands, Conway and his 82-year-old father, E.C., were awaiting word on the fate of their Forest Service grazing permit, which allowed 285 head of cattle.


The Forest Service had threatened to reduce that number to zero, in part because of a biologist's report that deemed Conway's grazing land a "potential habitat" for the endangered, wren-like Southwestern willow flycatcher.


As it turned out, Conway's grazing permit was renewed, as-is, on March 1. But Conway was hardly elated.


"It really doesn't mean anything," he said afterward. "The Forest Service can cancel my permit or alter it in any way whenever they choose."


In the meantime, Conway has not taken a wait-and-see approach to the situation.


Thanks to Conway's persistence, his conflicts with the Forest Service have become the focus of a governor's task force investigation led by Joe Lane, associate director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture (see related story).


However, Conway's initial meeting with task force members and Forest Service officials, held Tuesday, was a disappointment, the lifelong rancher said.


"It was hard to understand what the real purpose of it was," Conway said after the session featuring riparian experts, soil experts and color slides of Conway's land.


In Conway's view, the most reasonable statement made at the meeting came from task force member Norm Wallen, an environmentalist and Flagstaff city councilman, who said that most of the arguments he was hearing amounted to "science versus science."


"Two scientists can look at the same piece of land," Conway said, "and come to different conclusions. One can say, 'If you take the cows off, it will make the land better,' and the other can say, 'We can keep the cows here and make it better.' There are people who believe both sides of that. And that is the whole crux of this issue."


The least visible warrior in this three-way struggle is the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, a national environmentalist group, which in December 1998 filed suit against the Tonto National Forest for refusing to protect endangered species from what they claim are the impacts of cattle grazing on 25 grazing allotments -- including the one shared by Ewing and Cline.


The CBD's Web site (http:// www.sw-center.org) outlines the reason for the lawsuit: "Though livestock are endangering (a number of federally protected endangered species found in the area) the Forest Service has refused to formally consult with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on the management of grazing on the 500,000 acres targeted by the suit."


The CBD's Web site also characterizes cattle grazing as "... undoubtedly the most ubiquitous form of ecosystem degradation in the West... We are working on more lawsuits (against the Forest Service), with the ultimate goal of removing all cows from Southwest rivers... (and) all stream sides in the 60 million acre Gila River Basin."


Forest Service officials maintain that they did not refuse to develop management plans for all 25 allotments; the failure, they say, was a result of a chronic manpower shortage, which continues to plague them.


Whatever the case, the one and only point upon which everyone agrees is that, in Alford's words, the Forest Service is "no longer doing things we used to do, like allowing heavy degradation of riparian areas. We let some of that slide by in the past, but today there are more people holding our feet to the fire as far as complying with the law."


George Ewing's Tonto Basin spread, named the George T. Cline Equity Trust after his grandfather, has been worked by the rancher's family since the mid-1860s. During the 1930s, the Ewings had a permit for 1,800 head. In recent years, the number has been limited to 533.


Cline, who is Ewing's first cousin, has worked his current ranch since 1958, but his family's 140-year Tonto Basin grazing history is identical to Ewing's. At its peak, the operation ran 568 head of cattle. His last permit allowed 370.


Soon, their combined total will be zero.


Both ranchers have hired lawyers to appeal the decision, but "that's just a formality," Ewing said. "It ain't gonna work, because the pressure (the Forest Service) is getting from up above is a lot worse than the pressure we're putting on from below."


In the meantime, Cline asks, "What do you do with 370 head of cattle when they tell you to get them off the land, and you have no idea where to put them and no facilities to handle it?"


Once the cattle are removed, Cline said, "It's obvious I can't just sit here and look at this land. I'll have to do something with it."


Will he sell the ranch and retire?

"No. That's impossible. They're going to make me retire before I can sell it.


"You know, there was once a town here named after my family," said Cline, "but now it's at the bottom of Roosevelt Lake. Maybe that was an omen. Maybe we should have seen this coming."

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