Cattle Grazing: Problem Or Solution?

Grazing cattle

Grazing cattle Photo by Andy Towle.

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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.

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Grazing cattle

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.

Comments

Robbin Flowers 1 year, 6 months ago

"the consultants hired found no significant environmental issues beyond some scatters of pottery shards." I'm going to stay cool, but it's really, really hard. Who were these "consultants"? What planet did they come from?

"“100 years of failed federal policy” has created a tinderbox forest of dangerous tree thickets." Wait a minute, this will all be solved because a "resolution was introduced" by Gosar.

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Robbin Flowers 1 year, 6 months ago

"overgrazing played the key role in creating the current, potentially catastrophic conditions." They sure did, if fact, this has decimated our forests. Excellent article by the way. Now, I am curious about what "farm aid" or "pork barrel" money is backing this initiative? How much money was contributed to his campaign by the cattle or mining industries. I doubt this can even be found out because of Citizens United.

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Robbin Flowers 1 year, 6 months ago

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, then expecting a different result. I am pretty sure that all of congress has gone past this point. Lunatic and psychopath comes to mind.

Rock Ridge and land snatch.

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Pat Randall 1 year, 6 months ago

Mr. Naughton, I am not attacking robbin personally only the idiot things she posted about cattle ruining the forest.

Robbin, you don't have a clue about ranchers and cattle or lumber people. Over grazing did not cause the problem with the forests. I too remember when you could see beautiful open spaces between the trees. That was because the cattle kept the grass, and weeds from growing and causing the trees to burn if there was a lightning strike. Nothing to carry the fire on. Now the trees are so close together it costs millions of dollars to put out a fire. Along with burning homes. Lumber men took care of the trees. No they didn't strip the forests. The trees were of a cetain size and probably marked by the FS. Ranchers moved the cattle around so there would be feed later. You know, like they built fences. If they let the cattle stay in one spot there wouldn't be any feed the next year. THINK ABOUT IT. Ranchers paid for every cow, calf, bull, and horse that ran on the forest. I am not blowing this off the top of my head. My dad owned a ranch and later my husband and I owned a ranch west of the Doll Baby Ranch for 13 yrs. We had a permit for 150 head of livestock on 56 sections of land from the FS. Figure how much land that is for each head of livestock.

I have a Arizona Republic newspaper clipping that is over 50yrs old, and in it is Senator Carl Hayden, a Wingfield from Camp Verde, Walt Randall, my husband's grandad, some other men and FS people. They were discussing then about the trees getting to thick and what was going to happen. But Govt. knows best. Will stop ranting for now as I am trying to watch NASCAR and type at the same time. However I am not thru with this subject, the enviornmentalist know nothing. And the assessents are a waste of money. I can take you to at least 5 places here in Payson and find pottery shards. SO WHAT?

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Robbin Flowers 1 year, 6 months ago

Pat, I am sorry if I have crossed you the wrong way. I do believe that we both have love for our area and concern for what is happening. I have great respect and admiration for you. I don't think you realize how powerful you are, I love you, and I gracefully bow down to you.

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Robbin Flowers 1 year, 6 months ago

It was the over grazing and removal of all the grass and weeds that created and environment that caused the trees to grow so close together. Maybe I have a clue and maybe I don't, but there are other reference sources out there than the AZ Repug. Deer and elk have different grazing habits than cows. And in the bigger world, out side of the Payson area, if you think the cow scene is the same as it used to be, you need to do some research. Its quite nauseating, if you really want to look at reality.

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Robbin Flowers 1 year, 6 months ago

Pat, one more thing. I would follow you, over any government official in the world, that's how much respect I have for you.

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Pat Randall 1 year, 6 months ago

Robbin, I have forgotten more about ranching than you will ever know. You really don't have a clue. If the ranchers had let the cattle over graze then there would be no food for them the next year. That is why they were moved around. The lumber men took care of the trees. But that was stopped too. That is why we no longer have a sawmill in Payson. The reason I mentioned the Az. Rep. newspaper was the ranchers were trying to do something then to protect the forest. But the FS wouldn't listen.
Don't under estimate the intelligence of cowboys.

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Rex Hinshaw 1 year, 6 months ago

Robbin, I think Pat's responses on this topic are accurate . I have a question for you...explain what you mean by the "cow scene" being nauseating. I have never heard that phrase before and I have had ties to the cattle industry in Az. all my life. I am curious as to what exactly would nauseate a person like you about the "cow scene".

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Pat Randall 1 year, 6 months ago

robbin, I know the cow scene is not the same, as there are very few ranches left anywhere in Arizona with cattle out on the range. They may be in a pasture being fed every day.

Is that what you mean by nauseating?

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