Cattle grazing: The problem or the solution?
That question lay at the heart of Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin’s recent testimony in favor of a bill by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Prescott) that would set tight deadlines to force the Forest Service to use cattle grazing and timber thinning to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire.
The offspring of a pioneering Rim Country ranching family and herself a grazing ecologist, Martin testified that “100 years of failed federal policy” has created a tinderbox forest of dangerous tree thickets.
Gosar introduced House Resolution 1345 to set a 60-day limit on environmental assessments and a 90-day limit on environmental impact reports in reviewing any logging or grazing projects that might reduce fuel loads in a fire-prone area — which would include all of Rim Country.
The Forest Service normally takes far longer to prepare environmental reviews. For instance, the environmental assessment of a proposal to sell 260 acres to the Rim Country Educational Alliance took more than six months, although the consultants hired found no significant environmental issues beyond some scatters of pottery shards.
Gosar’s bill would require the Forest Service to automatically approve the project if it didn’t make the deadline. It also exempts from environmental review any wildfire prevention project in an at-risk area if it involves removal of dangerous fuels within 500 feet of power lines, campgrounds, roads, heritage sites, recreation sites, schools or other infrastructure.
The inclusion of cattle grazing leases in the bill spurred criticism from some environmental groups, who noted that studies show that widespread overgrazing played the key role in creating the current, potentially catastrophic conditions. When white settlers arrived in northern Arizona, they found a forest so open that riders could gallop in a straight line through grasslands belly-high to a horse. Low-intensity ground fires carried by the thick grass served to clear out the dead wood and saplings every five years or so. After cattle ate most of the grass, fire behavior changed dramatically across millions of acres, according to research published by Northern Arizona University Forester Wally Covington and others.
However, Martin offered a sharply different twist on the creation of the overstocked forest.
She placed the blame on Forest Service policies in the early 1900s that created a network of fenced cattle grazing allotments, which upended the old, open range system with cattle and sheep herds widely dispersed and tended by semi-nomadic ranchers and herders.
She said the fenced grazing allotments forced the cattle to repeatedly eat down fresh shoots of the grass to the nub, which eventually exhausted the plants and degraded the grasslands. As evidence, she cited the management of ranches in Utah, where cattle wander much more widely and graze individual areas much less intensely and repeatedly.
In her testimony about the natural grasslands and the fire cycle, she said, “the animals were constantly moved to maximize nutrition and avoid stressing any one area. The pioneers, with their nomadic style of livestock handling, knew intuitively and through experience that overgrazing was a function of time and not animal numbers.”
She noted that she served as a sustainable rangelands consultant in Ethopia and Somalia, which are beset by expanding deserts. However, “nowhere have I seen natural resources in worse condition than in our American West. By any honest measure of health, functioning or productivity, our resources are dead or dying and it is due to 100 years of failed federal policy.”
She called Gosar’s legislation “a good start,” but raised questions about some provisions — including a section that would give the counties 25 percent of the amount paid for the grazing lease or timber sale in a fire-prone area. She worried that Congress might provide that payment, but then do away with the existing system of “in lieu” payments to counties with so much federal land that it cripples their ability to get money from property taxes.
These forest fees have become critical to several property-tax imposing agencies in Gila County, including the county government and the school districts. Congress has repeatedly cut off the forest fee funding in recent years, partly because of the sharp decline in federal revenues from logging and ranching that used to provide the money for the payments.
She said loggers may end up paying little or nothing for the thinning contracts, which would make the promised 25 percent to the counties an illusion. “This could become a red herring or at least a mixing of apples and oranges. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and it is littered with unintended consequences.”
Martin said the federal government owns 96 percent of the 4,800 square miles in Gila County. Of that 4 percent, mining companies own 2.5 percent — and pay almost no tax or royalties under the terms of a century-old mining law intended to promote settlement in the West.
She testified “the heavily forested northern half a percent (of private land in Rim Country) represents up to 70 percent of our total assessed valuation and is 100 percent at risk from catastrophic wildfire.”
The federal mismanagement has transformed the forest in the past century, she said. “When my great-grandmother drove her family in a wagon into Rim Country in the later part of the 1800s, she told me the non-densely forested lands were ‘open, rolling, grassy hillsides with stringers of trees in the canyons.’ She said the boys could run a horse in any direction in what she called a ‘ponderosa savannah.’ She described 30 trees to an acre in the most forested areas where now we have up to 3,000.”
She noted that since her grandfather’s day, 1,000 miles of Rim Country streams have gone dry as a result of the impact of the thirsty roots of that dangerously dense forest.
Legislative analysts give the bill only a slight chance of passage, given provisions that would almost require the Forest Service to ignore other federal laws. The bill sets deadlines for action that might seem reasonable enough in private industry but that would require the financially struggling Forest Service to dramatically change its procedures. However, the bill doesn’t provide any extra funding to meet the stringent deadlines.