Grazing Public Lands is a High Stakes Game
By: Tim O’Byrne
Grazing on public land is a serious deal for a lot of our readers, and lately we’ve been introduced to what can happen if the parties involved fail miserably at playing the game within the boundaries of acceptable behavior. If all the wasted productive hours burned up over two decades in the most infamous of public grazing conflagrations in Clark County, Nevada were alfalfa pellets, you could fill the Washington Monument to the very tip of the spire. Clearly, while shedding some valuable light on the earthly shortcomings of all involved parties, that trail led not to green pastures.
One thing I’ve learned over the years (two things, actually). The first is this – if there’s a challenge brewing you must prepare for it strategically (like a chess player, thinking at least four moves out). The second is this – we live on the planet earth, and sometimes no matter how much you prepare, and no matter how much truth your case carries, the scales of Justice may not swing in your favor.
Relinquishing the second lesson to destiny and concentrating on the first shall be the meat and bones of this column.
One day, the powers that be who hold the key to your allotment maydecide they want to downsize your AUMs for a number of reasons; some are legitimate such as extended drought, while others, as we discovered in Hage v. the United States, are quite nefarious in their calculating nature.
So, you’ve got a legitimate beef, and you want to do something about it. Now that most informed Americans know what NOT to do about it, let’s explore an exciting strategy; hire a qualified range specialist to perform an unbiased third-party assessment of your public grazing practices and resources, provide a detailed report, and accompany you to the next meeting with your public lands coordinator. Oh, and pay this specialist what they are worth. Chalk it up to the cost of doing business in a new world, because it is a new world.
In order to bring us up to speed, I’ve consulted with John L. McLain, CRMC, CPESC, Principal Resource & Rangelend Specialist with Resource Concepts Inc. (RCI) in Carson City, Nevada. RCI has experience in providing evaluations of the appropriateness and economic implications of proposed Bureau of Land Management policies. John filled me in on how his company can help ranchers who graze on public lands prepare for a range permit meeting.
WR John, you mentioned it’s getting more difficult for our ranchers to work synergistically with BLM and USFS personnel lately for several reasons. What’s changed in the past 10 years that’s creating that friction?
JM Many of the personnel hired by public land agencies are not always trained in range management when they are assigned responsibility to administer grazing permits. We experience personnel with degrees in wildlife management, conservation biology, forestry and other specialties administering grazing permits, conducting the monitoring, or even determining the rangeland health for a given allotment and outlining what they feel to be issues attributed to grazing practices. Many of these specialists are recent hires and urban-raised, as opposed to past years when a larger representation were raised on ranches or in the rural areas and therefore more familiar with ranching and rangelands. In addition, we don’t see the level of training being provided by the agencies that we once id. State land grant universities, including Cooperative Extension Service, working with ranchers, consultants, federal and state agencies, once participated in range monitoring and other workshops and tours to help get everyone on the same page and to help remove barriers that oftentimes occur. I feel that this is largely lacking today. Also, the continual movement of agency personnel to new locations is a growing concern. It typically takes a couple of years for a seasoned range conservationist to become familiar with his new surroundings, the permittees, and to identify alternative solutions to perceived problems. If they are constantly being transferred they rarely have the opportunity to determine if what they planned for allotment improvements ever really worked. I don’t consider that growing in your profession.
WR And if there are qualified personnel onboard, what are they spending their valuable time doing?
JM Range Conservationists are often entangled in appeals, protests and/or litigation brought on mostly by antigrazing interests, leaving little time to address allotment monitoring and permitting needs. This plays into the hands of the opposition when it comes to court challenges.
WR Tell us a bit about the T Quarter Circle Ranch and their allotments up in the Winnemucca area. That project appeared to be quite successful.
JM RCI was approached by the operator out of concern regarding ongoing AUM reductions that were occurring on various other BLM permits in the area. He felt that with a sound monitoring program he would be able to justify his numbers and continue running his permit without threat to his permitted AUMs or the economic viability of his operation. RCI helped the operator establish a comprehensive monitoring program which he was quick to learn, and actively participated in the annual monitoring over about an 8 year period that included:
• learning the key species and utilization cage placement,
• how to determine use levels,
• the importance of recording climate conditions and events such as wildfire, insect infestations, etc.
After several years of monitoring with RCI, the operator effectively was able to carry on the monitoring by himself, but still retained RCI to field spot check his work to assure that he has things properly documented. To date his monitoring program has served to keep his permit whole and protected, knowing that he has quality data that will stand the scrutiny in court if ever required. The data isn’t there solely for protection, but also to guide his management decisions and insure quality rangelands that will deliver peak performance from his cow herd. This then hopefully becomes a win-win for the BLM and the operator.
WR It appears to me that it would be a huge confidence boost for a rancher to walk into a BLM or USFS range permit meeting with fresh data from an independent professional third party such as yourself, and even be accompanied by the consultant who can speak the language.
JM There’s no doubt that the appropriate data, when properly collected and presented, is critical to the rancher’s needs and represents a good offence. However, data also helps to point out where grazing problems may occur. An important point that needs to be made is that reducing AUMs very seldom does anything to address a grazing problem. It should be the last alternative by my experience.
More good is accomplished working together to relieve that area from the grazing pressure by perhaps tweaking the grazing management or suggesting a range improvement such as fencing or water development than by economically stressing a ranch operation through reductions.
WR What is the best advice you could give our readers who rely heavily on public grazing lands that are looking for some guidance?
JM Looking at the long term, I firmly believe that ranchers should be working to develop, with or without consulting assistance, an Allotment Management Plan (AMP) for their respective allotments. The AMP, once agreed to and signed by the agency and the permittee, becomes, in a sense, a contract with the agency and the roadmap for the next 10 years. If the plan is followed and backed up by good monitoring, I believe that it is almost bullet proof and provides the protection public land ranchers need today. Range Conservationists can come and go, but each replacement will be able to review the plan that the agency has already approved and follow its direction working with the ranch.
WR What about timing? Some readers are up to their boot tops in an existing fracas, some are seeing storm clouds on the horizon.
JM Range specialists like RCI can do the best job if we are there early to assist the permittee, as opposed to when the agency is ready to levy a decision on his permit in a negative way, such as a proposed reduction in AUMs. Anger and frustration seem to prevail at this point.
WR Thanks, John, your insight has been very helpful. You can contact RCI by calling (775) 883-1600 or checking out www.rci-nv.com.