One needs only to look at the coffee-table book Welfare Ranching’s full page pictures of muddy streams and packed dirt ground to know that cattle grazing can have a negative impact on rangelands. While its specific effects are harder to pinpoint, climate change, too, affects hydrology, native plants and wildlife. Add climate change and cows together, says a recent study, and you've got the potential for a very stressed landscape. In at least one part of the U.S., the Bureau of Land Management has already begun to incorporate those findings into grazing permits.
On Jan. 28, the BLM’s Owyhee Field Office in southwestern Idaho took the opportunity offered by the renewal of four grazing permits
to lower the number of cows allowed on those permits. Specifically, the
revised permits cut livestock numbers by one third to one half and
limit the amount of time the cattle can be on the BLM land. The grazing
cutbacks didn't come about just because the BLM was integrating new
science, though. Rather, they are the culmination of an epic legal
battle begun by the nonprofit Western Watersheds Project, whose pressure has forced the cutbacks. The group, known for its unwillingness to compromise and staunch opposition to public lands grazing,
sued the BLM in 1997 for issuing nearly 70 permits without a thorough
consideration of rangeland health. In 2002, a U.S. District Court judge
ruled in WWP’s favor.
Because of that ruling, the agency is just now re-evaluating the health of the area, and an environmental analysis of the first four permits
found that all of the allotments violated at least two, and sometimes
four, of the BLM’s rangeland health standards, including water quality,
endangered species habitat and native plant health. More importantly,
the analysis determined that livestock were “significant causal factors”
in the allotments’ failure to meet standards -- in other words, the
cows are to blame. A small paragraph in document also notes that cattle
are a stressor that adds to impacts already being wrought by climate
change, and cites a paper published in January in Environmental Management that
details the relationship between cattle and climate. When deciding how
to revise the grazing permits to respond to the environmental
assessment's findings, Loretta Chandler, the field manager of the Owyhee
Field Office, appeared to consider these findings, although a spokesman
for the Idaho state office said the agency still needs more research on
how grazing levels react with climate change.
The authors of the study, “Adapting to Climate Change on Western Public Lands:
Addressing the Ecological Effects of Domestic, Wild,and Feral
Ungulates,” argue that reducing cattle numbers or eliminating them
entirely will lead to the recovery and resilience of the arid sagebrush
steppe ecosystem, important in a region stressed by drought, higher
temperatures, more fires and insect outbreaks. Over 70 percent of Forest
Service and BLM lands have livestock grazing, but despite this, there
are fewer efforts to mitigate cattle’s deleterious effect on the
landscape than other stressors, they say.
“They invariably talk about fire, forestry, roads, and they
never talk about grazing,” says Robert Beschta, an emeritus professor in
Oregon State University’s department of forest ecosystems and society
and co-author of the study. “That’s the biggest land use on public
lands, (and) it’s basically ignored when they talk about resiliency.”
Why? Beschta points to internal politics. “Is there an internal agenda by agencies to downplay grazing impacts? I would say yes.”
The BLM’s new Owyhee grazing permits may be a step towards a
more holistic consideration of the impact of grazing when combined with
climate change. Chandler notes that the revised permits are an
opportunity to prioritize ecosystem resilience and resistance to the
impacts of climate change through careful livestock management. The
grazing alternative she chose, to limit grazing to the summer time and
reduce the number of cattle, will mean that “native plant
communities…will be better armed to survive such (climatic) changes,”
the permit reads.
The consideration of climate seems progressive, and counter to
some recent agency history. The BLM certainly does not always
acknowledge that cattle, or climate, are stressors. In a 2010 grazing management strategy
for Juniper Mountain in eastern Oregon, the agency received a comment
asking the BLM to consider how impacts of cattle grazing exacerbate
climate-induced stress on the ecosystem. The agency responded by denying
that climate change was a “new stress” on ecosystems, and wrote that
“climate variability has occurred since the beginning of time and most
healthy native ecosystems adapt.”
In November 2012, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) reported that the agency had directed scientists to exclude livestock
as a possible factor in changing landscapes. According to the PEER
report (which filed a scientific integrity complaint against the
“Launched in 2010 with more than $40 million in stimulus funds,
BLM sought to analyze ecological conditions across six “eco-regions”
covering the Sagebrush West. There was only one catch: when scientists
were assembled BLM managers informed them that there was one “change
agent” that would not be studied – the impacts of commercial livestock
grazing. BLM managers told stunned scientists the reason for this
puzzling exclusion was due to “stakeholders” opposition and fear of
litigation, according to documents appended to the PEER complaint.”
To get PEER’s take on the Owyhee permits, I contacted Jeff
Ruch, the group’s executive director, and asked him if he’d seen mention
of the relationship between climate and cattle in grazing permits
before. He admitted he was not familiar enough with permit restrictions
to answer that question, but noted climate (and how its effects are, in
turn, affected by cattle grazing) wasn’t the deciding factor in reducing
livestock numbers. “In both the EA and the permit decision, climate
change appeared to be cited as a plus factor, sort of a cherry on top of
the regulatory sundae, adding a further justification for pursuing
reductions in grazing levels,” he wrote.
As for Beschta, the author of the study cited in the EA, for the BLM to begin to think about this problem at all is a big deal.
To move towards a solution, he says “first of all you need to know you have a problem.”
Emily Guerin is the editorial fellow at High Country News.
Friday, February 1, 2013
Councilor Joseph Eby, who asked for the item to be placed on the council's meeting agenda, said House Bill 292 was presented Monday to the state legislature and was headed to committee reviews. The law is modeled after similar legislation passed in Utah, but would not affect national monuments or wilderness areas.
"New Mexico is 70 percent U.S. government land," he said. "When New Mexico became a state, the federal government promised to extinguish title to public lands within a reasonable amount of time. We've been a state more than 100 years and are still waiting for that promise to be fulfilled."
With the transfer of public lands, the state would benefit economically from any sales of that land and for access to minerals and other natural resources, he said. In any case, the state, counties and communities would have more of a say in management decisions.
He cited a U.S. Forest Service forest fuels reduction and watershed improvement project around Bonito Lake that was delayed because of a protest by an environmental group, and in June, that habitat was destroyed in the Little Bear Fire.
"I'm not saying it wouldn't have happened, but it could have prevented the spread of the fire,"Eby said.
Councilor James Stoddard asked Village Attorney Dan Bryant if there was any reason the council should not support the legislation or if there were legal issues the resolution might raise.
"If the council passes the resolution (in support of the legislation), it will be sent to Santa Fe, our legislative delegation and other legislators asking them to vote affirmatively on the bill," Bryant said. The resolution also calls for the creation of a Public Lands Transfer Task Force.
"This battle over federal land management has been raging in the West my entire life," the attorney said.
Over the years, the viewpoint has shifted, he said. The BLM, the U.S. Forest Service and other management agencies were populated by the sons and daughters of farmers and ranchers and land users, "but today those agencies are no longer populated by those sons and daughters and local communities in the red part of this map have lost our voice."
"It all boils down to the bureaucracy and the jobs they have to lose if it happened," Stoddard said. "The bureaucracies that maintain those positions will lobby like crazy to keep this from happening."
Bryant, who also is attorney for the Otero County Commission, said 88 percent of that neighboring county is federal land, "so we run the society just south of here on 12 percent of the land mass. The numbers in Lincoln County are close, 78 percent to 85 percent, he said.
Mayor Ray Alborn asked about any restrictions if the bill passes. Bryant said as drafted, the bill, "would not undo national parks or monuments or any of those kinds of places, but there are tens of thousands of acres that could be turned over to the state that could be turned into productive ground that are sitting fallow and unused," he said.
The state and counties receive money from the annual Congressionally-authorized Payment in Lieu of Taxes program as some compensation for not being able to levy property taxes against the acreage, Bryant explained. Otero County runs on a $30 million budget and receives $1.4 million for 88 percent of the county's real estate, he said.
"Who then bears the cost of services (counties and cities provide), our taxpayers on that 12 percent of the real estate, because we are unable to get benefit from the balance of that real estate," Bryant said.
BLM probably manages double the number of acres contained in the Lincoln National Forest, he added.
"What it's really about is getting a voice into the local communities about the decisions that are going to be made on neighboring federal land," Bryant said. "In the last generation, we've had almost no voice. We have a great local forester. I'm not talking about personnel, but it's a larger question."
Legislation that would move the ownership and management of U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands in New Mexico to the state has been introduced at the Roundhouse.
The Transfer of Public Lands Act is sponsored by Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-Alamogordo, and Sen. Richard C. Martinez, D-Espanola.
In a prepared statement, Herrell said New Mexico has a rich history of farming, ranching, hunting, fishing and oil drilling.
"In our past we have also had a thriving timber industry that is unfortunately near nonexistent," Herrell said. "We have been fortunate to have vast expanses of land that can be utilized by New Mexicans to help feed their families and enrich their communities. However, we are currently not getting the full use of the land that could be available. Instead, we are paying a management fee to the federal government in order to allow them to make the rules on how our land is used."
The legislation, introduced on Monday, would exclude national parks, national historic parks, national monuments, wilderness areas, and tribal lands. The bill calls on the U.S. Government to extinguish title to the public lands and transfer title to the state on or before Dec. 31, 2015.
"In my home of Otero County, we would greatly benefit from this act as it has the potential to allow for a renewal of the timber industry," Herrell said. "A healthy timber industry, managed responsibly by New Mexicans, would not only help our economy by creating a large number of jobs, but it would also help to protect our watersheds and keep our forests as livable habitat for all wildlife. Additionally, by responsibly thinning our overgrown forests, we can help decrease the devastation of wildfires. As it is currently, the federal government has logging restrictions that keep our forests overgrown, creating a hazardous environment. When a fire starts, the overgrowth serves as kindling, creating a massive forest fire that threatens the safety of our homes and communities."
Herrell said it is time to put an end to the wildland fire danger.
The legislation is similar to the Transfer of Public Lands Act enacted last year in Utah. But an analysis by the Utah Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel cautioned lawmakers and the governor that the act would interfere with Congress' power to dispose of public lands. The review noted that any attempt by Utah to enforce the requirement would have a high probability of being declared unconstitutional.
Staff in the New Mexico Attorney General's Office normally reviews proposed legislation.
"This bill does not show up on our public records site yet," Phil Sisneros, director of communications for the AG's office said Thursday. "That means either it is still being reviewed or it has not come to us for analysis."
The New Mexico Transfer of Public Lands measure would establish a public lands transfer task force to facilitate the transfer of the federal lands to the state. The task force would also establish a prioritized list of management actions to in part preserve and promote the state's interest in protecting public health and safety, preventing catastrophic wildfire and forest insect infestation, preserving watersheds, preserving and enhancing energy and the production of minerals, preserving and improving range conditions, and increasing plant diversity and reducing invasive weeds.
Herrell said the transfer of national forest and BLM lands to the state would also provide revenues to New Mexico's coffers instead of the feds.
"If we follow suit with other states that have done exactly what I am proposing, we can bring in 100 percent of revenues from oil, gas, timber and other industries from this land instead of the less than 50 percent that we currently keep. Doing so will allow us to put more money into our education system to ensure that the children of New Mexico get the education that they deserve."
Herrell pointed to a study done for the Otero County Commission by the Southwest Center for Resource Analysis. She said the report indicated lands currently managed by the BLM and U.S. Forest Service generates more than $500 million in annual revenues for the federal government.
A Fiscal Impact Report for House Bill 292 had not been completed. Legislative Finance Committee staff analyst Mary McCoy said the report would likely be finalized on the day the bill is scheduled to be heard by its first committee, the Agriculture and Water Resources Committee. Rep. Zach Cook, R-Ruidoso, is a member of the committee. A date for a hearing had not been scheduled as of Thursday.
Herrell said five other Western states are looking at similar legislation.
"I am happy to blaze this trail along with other states in the west," Herrell said. "New Mexicans deserve better than the land management we are currently getting from the federal government."