Sunday, July 20, 2008

Home, home on the holistic range
The Oregon cowboy must change his ways to keep his place on the high desert landscape

Editorial - The Oregonian

Last week's sage-scented verdict from a federal appeals court sent us two sharp reminders:

Judicial decisions are awfully blunt tools with which to craft environmental policy.

The most endangered species in Oregon may be the cowboy.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals just ordered the federal Bureau of Land Management to take a look -- again -- at how it's managing more than 4 million acres in eastern Oregon.

The court's message was clear: The BLM better bear in mind the rising wilderness values of our state's shrub-steppe range.

The decision marked one more victory for high-desert environmentalists in their battle to make Uncle Sam a better steward of Oregon's dry side. It sent, too, a clear signal to Oregon cattlemen: Get smarter, or get ready to get off the public range.

Last week's decision came hard on the hoofs of a 2000 ruling in which the Supreme Court voted 9-0 to uphold much tighter regulation of grazing on public lands -- a decision that sent shivers through nearly 1,500 ranchers who hold grazing leases on 13 million acres of BLM land in Oregon.

A century ago, huge herds of cattle and vast flocks of sheep roamed central and eastern Oregon, where both plants and soil are acutely fragile. The result was extensive environmental degradation, especially in riparian zones, that took a huge toll on everything from sage grouse to salmon.

More recently, with sheep all but eliminated and cattle greatly reduced, much work is being done to better manage desert livestock. Some Oregon cattlemen are trying a practice they call "holistic range management." Heeding the mantra of an African rancher named Allan Savory, they insist that wandering herds actually enhance rather than degrade native grasslands.

Environmentalists bark back that the arid West, unlike Africa's great savanna, never was home to huge native herds. Thus, its ecosystem is much more brittle.

As the debate rages, public sentiment -- even among lovers of steak -- seems already to have shifted. Oregonians long were willing to let public lands here be managed for little more than livestock and mining. More recently, more and more people are advocating for those lands as a recreational resource, as habitat for fish and wildlife -- even as a reservoir of carbon sequestration. (We knew we'd eventually find a role for all those juniper flats.)

In the past 100 years, Oregon has seen a dramatic reduction in its number of cattle, and the cowboys who herd them. Unless Oregon cattlemen move quickly, and in concert, to carve out for themselves a more sustainable role in the sage, that decline will continue. Running fewer cattle on public range, moving them more often, securely fencing them out of streambeds, seems like a good place to start.

Willie Nelson once warned mamas not to let their babies grow up to be cowboys. Pretty soon, Oregon will be warning its cowboys not to grow up to be baristas.

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