Home Notes From Kathy It’s Not Easy Being a BLM Range Conservationist

It’s Not Easy Being a BLM Range Conservationist

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By Famartin - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34663613

This week, I’m sharing a story from the High country News about how federal rangelands managed by the Bureau of Land Management are not meeting health standards. I have a lot of experience working with ranchers and Bureau of Land Management Range Conservationists and I thought the story left out something important: the difficult position that most rangeland managers are in. Here’s some of what I learned in my 12 years with the agency.

By Famartin – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34663613

One of my first PR assignments with the BLM was working with both on a brochure that explained the benefits that public lands grazing provided: Trails for hiking and biking, water developments that served wildlife, not to mention their contributions to the local economy. It was 1991, the time of “No More Moo in ’92,” “Cattle-free by ’93,” and the term “Welfare ranching” was common in news stories about grazing in the West. That was followed by Rangeland Reform ’94, focused on increasing grazing fees, restricting water rights, eliminating subleasing of grazing permits, and more.

It started with a series of public meetings all across the West, including my town, Grand Junction, Colorado. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt traveled to Grand Junction over and over to meet with a group of ranchers and environmentalists who were successfully working together to create healthy rangelands. He hoped to understand why what they were doing worked and how that might be translated to the country as a whole. I helped coordinate rancher access to Babbitt meetings and I once arranged a secret meeting between Babbitt and my District Manager about an attempt to sabotage his efforts.

I thought his ideas had merit and might have put ranchers and environmentalists on a track to work together to meet mutually beneficial goals. But, in the end, Rangeland Reform ’94 fizzled in the face of Western politics. So environmental groups in the West took to the courts, where they’ve been fighting things out since. One of the first, and most impactful cases came early on. A successful lawsuit managed to put a stop to grazing in three Utah canyons known for their significant petroglyphs and pictographs.

I once visited one of the Comb Wash canyons with a group of students and the range conservationist involved in the court case. One of the issues he had in court was trying to explain indicators of rangeland health or how one of the pictures being used in court only showed a particular time and that the area rebounded each year to a healthy status. It was an interesting lesson in the importance of good communication.

Although The Comb Wash decision involved only about about ten square miles of land that only produced enough forage to support twenty-one cows it shook the agency. I remember sitting with a group of range cons as they discussed what it meant to their workload. Typically, they relied on the planning that governed all lands in the area, assuming that work covered anything they might do. The new ruling dictated that in order to issue or renew a grazing permit, the agency needed to show that it had analyzed the environmental consequences of the decision.

That they are still struggling to do this is reflected in the PEER report about rangelands failing their health assessments. It’s not surprising to me that there is a large swath of land that has never been assessed and that the BLM continues to use loopholes to accomplish their work. After all, the BLM has 204 million acres of rangeland to manage across the western U.S. and only 241 staff dedicated to it. The average BLM range con is responsible for 500,000 acres and scores of permits and allotments. Having taught many students the ins and outs of rangeland health assessments, I know there’s no way for one person to do assessments on half a million acres.

Their work is also dangerous. In some parts of the country, staff have been told by their bosses and by the ranchers themselves that their lives are in danger if they visit certain allotments to do their jobs. I think it’s highly likely that the high rate of land health failure due to livestock overgrazing in Nevada is directly attributable to death threats to staff. I once worked on a project in Nevada where livestock overgrazing had turned the landscape to dust. For two decades, and in spite of multiple BLM wins in court, any attempt to change the situation by removing animals was met with armed resistance. One person was even jailed for trying to set a BLM ranger on fire. It took almost three decades and the old-age deaths of the ranchers involved for anything to change. And that was just one Nevada example.

These are the kinds of things I think about when I read reports like the one in High Country News. I appreciate the work that PEER did to reveal the status of rangeland health. I think it’s important for us to know since these lands belong to all of us. I’m also sympathetic to the position we’ve put our rangeland managers in by not providing the funding and staff necessary to do the work. Finally, if we want healthy lands, we need to prevent the kinds of threats that prevent our managers from doing their jobs.

I hope this adds a little perspective to the High Country News article being shared this week.

Thanks for reading!

Kathy

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Kathy Voth
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.