Wednesday, July 23, 2008

To Clean a Dirt Tank and the Real Loss

By Rebecca Powell, 7-22-08

Part of an ongoing series about the Doña Ana County Wilderness Debate. For more on the debate and the proposals, see A Biased Observer of the Doña Ana County Wilderness Debate, For Some, Wilderness is Simple, Pearce Submits People’s Proposal to the House, and More Than a Yes or No to Wilderness.

Type in grazing on public lands in any search engine and opinions and diatribes pop up like dandelions. Those calling for the end of grazing cite environmental and economic factors. Environmental arguments against grazing have been countered by Allan Savory, though many still claim bovines decimate the land. Arguments on the basis of economics complain ranchers pay a pittance to graze, a fraction of what it would cost to lease the land from a private owner.

I am not a range specialist, a botanist, or a biologist. The environmental impact of grazing will be left for others to argue. However, I do know a little about time. People pay for me my time, time I spend thinking or writing. I try to live my life by advice I was given as a teenager: where I allocate my time reveals what I value. So when I heard it took Tom Mobley, a rancher and retired banker, five months to navigate the Bureau of Land Management’s permit process to clean a dirt tank, I blanched and dialed his number.

Mobley agreed to meet with me at his home, north of Las Cruces. I arrived 15 minutes late.

On a ranch, you fix what breaks. Fences are mended, levees repaired, tractors older than grandchildren are made to run. Fixing what is broken is half the job. Summer floods breached a dirt tank on Mobley’s grazing allotment in the Sierra de las Uvas. The Citizen’s Proposal recommends 11,068 acres in the Sierra de las Uvas be designated as wilderness. Mobley grazes 900 acres adjoining his ranch of the proposed wilderness, now a Wilderness Study Area. Rains in the Sierra De Las Uvas come fast and sudden, carving rivers down the slopes, rushing to the Rio Grande. The breached dirt tank stores a little of the West’s most precious resource for livestock and passing wildlife.

Ranchers grazing on BLM land typically hold permits for ten years. The permits place the upkeep of all existing improvements squarely on the shoulders of permittees, the ranchers. After monsoon season, Mobley set about the task of cleaning and fixing the dirt tank. Cleaning a dirt tank on BLM land involves a lot more than a skid steer loader. A whole lot of paper, people and time are involved in the fixing of a levee and the clearing of mesquite.

First, he filled out the appropriate paperwork. The dirt tank had washed out before and Mobley knew the drill. A BLM employee went with him to the site of the breach, inspected the site, took photographs, and assured him she would issue the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). An EIS is drafted every time repairs are needed; regardless of if the repairs have happened before. A new EIS was drafted and then sent to the interested parties. Twenty-four people, many of them tied to different conservation groups, received copies of the report and were given thirty days to comment. No one commented. Mobley was free to begin fixing the dirt tank, more or less.

Mobley wanted to use a skid steer loader to fix the breach. Shovels could have been used, if he had had the manpower, but the story of modern ranching includes the replacement of manual labor with machines. One man can do the work of twenty. BLM allowed the use of the skid steer loader, provided he park on visquine, a tarp. Mobley had hoped to cut back the mesquite lining the dam and apply an herbicide to stop their regrowth. BLM said he could cut the mesquite, but only with hand tools, and no herbicide could be used.

It took three days of actual work to fix the tank and five months of bureaucratic swimming. Mobley said none of the regulations necessarily hurt him, but he wonders at the inefficiency and the wasted time. What else could the BLM employee have accomplished in the time it took to draft a report and oversee the project?

Look at a map of New Mexico and you will see a checkerboard of ownership. Public and private land bump against one another in odd patterns with irregular borders. Ranching in arid New Mexico takes a lot of acres and a lot of New Mexico land (42%) is owned by the government, thus grazing on public land is not a rarity. Ranchers are allowed to graze in Wilderness Study Areas and wilderness designations and they do so for little monetary cost. Allowance does not mean free reign and the little monetary cost has hidden charges in the way of time and inconvenience. Grazing on federal lands comes with heavy oversight and a reservoir of rules. On one hand, I am pleased the BLM is overseeing what happens on our federal lands. On the other, twenty-four people need to know about repairing a broken levee? And parking on visquine is necessary?

People for Preservation of Our Western Heritage reports that at a City of Las Cruces meeting, Mr. Ed Roberson, Las Cruces BLM District Manager at the time, publicly stated “The ranchers are afraid of being ‘eaten’ one bite at a time.” So why does it matter if ranchers like Mobley have to wait five months to make repairs? If they decide the hassle of wilderness and wilderness area restrictions are too much and quit ranching? The answer: land. Ranchers who utilize federal lands own vast sections of land beside the areas we want to protect. The view sheds are open because ranching happens on those lands. If the ranchers quit ranching because of restrictions, they will sell their land. Chances are good it will not be sold to another rancher, but to a developer. So instead of seeing a few cows, we can peep in people’s windows and look at rooflines.

Mobley grazes in a Wilderness Study Area, an area not yet wilderness. He is part of People for Preservation of Our Western Heritage who proposes new designations (Rangeland Preservation Areas and Special Preservation Areas) for sections of the Sierra de Las Uvas, Organ, Doña Ana, Robledo and Potrillo Mountains. They propose the new designations, not because they are against wilderness, but because they are for ranching. They want to continue ranching and wilderness looks like a threat, a romantic threat, a popular threat. In the time I spent with Mobley, he talked of his love for the Valle Vidal, of the time he spent in the Gila. This is not a man who hates wilderness, who abhors conservation. He is a man who thinks there are multiple ways to be right and more than one way to get things done.

For two years as a newly wed, Mobley took care of his father-in-law’s ranch. As the sole employee and caretaker, he learned to do things he thought were impossible. When you are alone on a ranch, it does not matter if it takes four people to get a task accomplished—what matters is that it needs done, and it needs done now. Mobley learned to rely on himself, to look at a situation and not think “impossible,” but to think “how?” When talks between the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and the ranchers failed, a failure Mobley attributes to both sides of the debate, Mobley despaired. What now? Would the ranchers be the isolated, silenced minority? His life training learned long ago on a remote ranch resurfaced, and a grandson’s school report provided another option.

So, yes, I would mourn the loss of a view shed if ranchers quit ranching, but more than that I would mourn the loss of people like Mobley, people who know there is more than one way to get a thing done.

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