The long, confusing battle over whether to let 300 cows wander across 42,000 acres that drain into Fossil Creek offers a small, vivid illustration of why the U.S. Forest Service has become all but paralyzed in contending with conflicting demands on public lands.
On the one side, you have one of the dwindling number of ranching operations — this one oddly enough owned by a doctor dabbling in cattle raising.
On the other side, you have the Center for Biological Diversity fighting its tenacious, take-no-prisoners crusade on behalf of endangered species.
Somewhere in the middle you have the endangered Chiricahua leopard frog and a host of other species dependent on this miraculous, living stream.
For starters, the uplands of Fossil Creek seems like a strange place to make a stand for the right to run cattle on public lands. The creek is a precious, irreplaceable place.
Moreover, the Forest Service has once again shown a disheartening willingness to skimp on science and skirt the rules when under political pressure. For instance, the Center pointed out that cattle given access to a 40-foot stretch of the creek itself would likely gobble up every sprout and brush — and hang out around the water as long as possible. That violates the rules set out by the Coconino Forest Plan that bars grazing in any area where the cattle don’t leave at least 20 percent of the woody vegetation.
So the Forest Service changes the rule: Saying that what it meant to say was that as long as at least 20 percent of the woody growth survives on average throughout the forest, cows can eat every twig in a particular area. Such tactics leave the Forest Service endlessly vulnerable to these frustrating, expensive and never-ending lawsuits. And that’s a shame.
Ranchers can make use of public lands without harming the environment. Moreover, responsible ranch operations provide benefits to wildlife — like the stock tanks in which most of the Chiricahua leopard frogs on the allotment now live. Meanwhile, the loss of ranch operations has harmed rural communities like Payson.
It doesn’t have to be this way. For instance, the 4FRI idea proved that loggers and environmentalists can agree on a plan for the wise and sustainable use of public lands. But time after time, the Forest Service vacillates and equivocates rather than making defensible decisions based on science. So that even when the Forest Service has a case to make, everything ends up in a muddle — in court.