Forest Magazine Article: Another Dry Year?
John Miera doesnt want to be known as a big bad bureaucrat.
Hed prefer to be thought of as a role model for ranchers who graze cattle on the land he helps manage on the Santa Fe National Forests Espanola Ranger District.
Last summer, as district ranger, Miera asked ranchers to remove cattle from leased allotments and shorten their grazing seasons. After years of severe drought and low snowpack in the Jemez and Sangre de Cristo mountains, the land was too dry and forage production too low to sustain cattle.
Since he had already moved cattle off his familys ranch in northern New Mexico, he knew just what he was asking.
We understood things were tough and it was in the best interest of the land and the animals, he says.
As another spring of below average moisture comes to a close in much of the West, Miera may be facing a similar decision this summer. He and other federal land managers in the U.S. Forest Service and scientists on the Range Improvement Task Force at New Mexico State University spent the winter and spring monitoring range readiness. They found little to indicate that this years moisture level and forage production will be much better than last. They say they carved out a plan designed to convert science into range management and to create some guidelines that will ease tensions still high from last summer.
Miera has written to ranchers in his district already this year, telling them to brace for another hard year. He hopes preparation and communication will help prevent the Santa Fe National Forest from becoming ground zero for the debate over public land ranching as it did last year when economics and ecology worked together to create a harsh reality for the land and those who rely on it.
This summer doesnt look very promising, says David Stewart, the director of rangeland management on the Forest Services Southwestern Region. This drought and the grim outlook for forage production are not unique to the Santa Fe, he says.
Neither is questionable management of forest resources, says John Horning, of the Santa Febased advocacy group Forest Guardians.
Those who would tell you the problems were minimal [last summer] ignored the problems in the first place, says Horning. The problems are institutional and systemic, where foresters look the other way in time of drought. There is agency dysfunction from top to bottom.
Tensions flared last summer when Stewart toured ten grazing allotments on four ranger districts within the Santa Fe National Forest in June. He later wrote in a memo to Santa Fe National Forest land mangers that what he saw on the forest was the most horrible example of grazing administration hed experienced in thirty-five years with the Forest Service.
I can only conclude that line officers on the Santa Fe either, 1) cannot read, 2) are simply defiant of basic Regional Forester direction, 3) are afraid, 4) just dont care, or, 5) a combination of all of the above? he wrote in the widely circulated e-mail. He wanted to break land managers out of their complacency to redeem their responsibilities to the resource they are obligated to protect, he wrote.
The 1.6 million acres of the Santa Fe National Forest range in elevation from about 3,000 to 13,000 feet. Moisture varies in low-elevation meadows and high-elevation forests. Even in good moisture years, the Santa Fe is still a parched landscape by summer, with little precipitation to abate high desert conditions. The Santa Fe hosts 275 ranchers who are permitted to graze cattle on eighty-six leased allotments throughout the forest. Families pass these leases from one generation to the next. About seventy leases are currently active.
Permittees rely on their leased allotments to graze cattle throughout the summer because their ranches are small, some as few as forty acres, compared to their counterparts in places like Wyoming and Montana, where ranchers often own hundreds or thousands of acres. Northern New Mexico ranchers usually grow hay on their base land and lease federal land to graze cattle at about a tenth of the cost of grazing them on private land. But years of drought have made even high-elevation grasses unpredictable and put further strain on the ranchers expectations for the Santa Fe.
Overgrazing, soil compaction and beaten down streams are tough on a landscape, but many say they are merely symptoms of a far greater fundamental problem that faces the West: asking more of the land than it is able to give.
This is not a problem that was created overnight and not a problem unique to drought years. Its just worse during droughts, says Horning. It is not a problem that can be solved by rethinking one summers grazing policy in one national forest. These lands need to heal, he says.
When ranchers are pitted against the land, the land always loses, Horning says, because of agency bias and cultural mythology.
The agencys relationship to drought is one manifestation of the backward relationship to ranchers, he says. They make decisions that accommodate ranchers at the expense of the integrity of the land.
Leonard Atencio, former forest supervisor on the Santa Fe National Forest, says that the events of last summer were an anomaly and that conditions were dire at best.
The problem last year was everyone was in denial that the situation was as bad as it was and they didnt make conservative decisions expecting conditions to improve, he says.
Ranchers continued to graze more cattle than they should have, Atencio says, and conditions worsened severely.
They tried to recover, and it put permittees in a very difficult situation and some had to sell animals, he says. We were criticized from all directions. We were criticized by permittees for not telling them about conditions sooner and criticized by environmental groups for leaving the cattle on.
John Peterson, Jemez district ranger, calls the combination of last summers conditions and Stewarts letter unfortunate.
He was really worried about drought and concerned that we hadnt taken any action or that we werent staying on top of things, he says. He was concerned that maybe we werent doing the right thing. It was an impassioned plea to-at all costs-protect grasses, and it made the livestock owners angry.
Miera says he felt the big heavy hand of compliance and that it made his already difficult job even harder.
It is tough when other levels like the regional office get involved. [Stewart] may or may not have known what was in the works when he came down hard, he says. He was quoted as saying it was the worst case in some years. But he had no idea what we had already worked out with permittees.
Stewart says he wrote the memo simply because the Santa Fe National Forest wasnt prepared last summer.
The memo was my admonishment of the Santa Fe for not adequately planning ahead, Stewart says. It was for them not taking the proper precautions. We in the Forest Service have a job-a duty-to properly protect the resources. They made a monumental mistake, and they are working very hard this year to avoid the situation again.
Last summer, Stewart ordered cattle immediately off several allotments, sending ranchers in search of alternative grazing land.
Some ranchers were able to find it. Some were allowed to graze their cattle on the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Other werent as lucky. They faced buying expensive feed with no federal help (a program to help them buy feed ran dry in September 2001 and wasnt renewed) or selling their cattle at record low prices. Some ranchers got refunds on their grazing fees, but the money wasnt enough to buy feed.
Then, Atencio says, things got political.
A delegation of ranchers went to Washington, D.C., to protest being moved off their allotments to a sympathetic undersecretary of agriculture. Mark Rey stayed Stewarts decision and allowed ranchers to keep cattle grazing on their allotments on the Santa Fe while scientists from the Range Improvement Task Force studied the issue closely. The task force concluded, as the Forest Service had, that the cattle must come off.
There were protests from ranchers at Atencios office. Plans with displaced ranchers began to unravel, and land managers who were on the frontlines of the debate began to feel pressure.
There were a lot of tense moments and strong feelings, Miera says. When it goes to that level, it takes away the flexibility and options one might have. When someone looks over your shoulder, it becomes a high-profile issue. Permittees were standoffish, and it slowed down what we already had in place. When things get political, it cant help but affect decisions.
Atencio says cattle will go on allotments this spring, though there will likely be a reduction in the number of cattle on most allotments. He says that working out the larger problem is just a matter of working out differences of ideology.
We need to work out mythologies. We didnt have a clear understanding of what was going on last year, Atencio says.
But Horning says mythologies are precisely the problem. Land managers are perpetuating the cowboy myth in which sun-baked men went west to work and live off the land. They dont take into account that ranching is, at best, an economically marginal activity and that the myth of the western cowboy is just that, a myth that existed for only about twenty years during the early settlement of the West. Hardship and subsidies-not rugged individualism and riding off into the sunset--are now more likely to characterize the western cowboy.
The agency is biased toward ranchers, Horning says. Abstractly, it comes from cultural mythology. Practically, it comes from the highest levels of the Department of Agriculture. [Ranchers] are getting their marching orders from Mark Rey not to force removal of livestock from land, and people like Dave Stewart, who occasionally let their conscience guide them, get marginalized and stepped on.
Still, Atencio calls last summer a lesson learned.
Conditions can get very severe, and we need to communicate to permittees the severity of the drought he says. The approach this year is to be honest with the permittees and give them the best possible information.
Critics of grazing on public land say that though communication is an effective tool, a situation similar to last summers is readying itself as summer approaches, not because of decisions made in the last few years but because of years and years of placing unrealistic demands on the land. This summer may be no different than last, they say. The land will likely continue to suffer until land managers realize that though ranchers may have temporarily won the political battle, aridity may be winning the ecological war.
For readers who value our national forests for recreation, clean water, wildlife sanctuaries and spectacular wilderness.
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