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More Than Drought Harms Rangeland, Officials Say

Environment: Some federal managers blame livestock overgrazing. Ranchers do not agree.


TONTO NATIONAL FOREST, Ariz. — With a sweep of his arm, Eddie Alford takes in the lifeless tableau: a gaunt landscape of withered shrubs, desiccated cactuses and bare mounds where grasses once sprouted.

Congress, the public and ranchers are quick to blame drought for these conditions, which have forced the withdrawal of cattle herds from nearly 70% of public grazing land in the Southwest, including this starved stretch of Tonto National Forest.

Alford, a biologist for the U.S. Forest Service, has a different view. He believes that decades-old polices by agencies such as his, as well as poor practices by ranchers themselves, have brought public rangelands to this sorry shape.

"We have some [ranchers] who have stocked 10 times the cattle ... allowed on their permit," he said. "Our focus has always been to support grazing at all costs. Now look. It doesn't take much of a drought to make this country look bad if it's been managed poorly. The southern part of the Tonto has never had a chance to recover since the overgrazing of the late 1800s."

Similar concerns have prompted normally circumspect career federal managers to speak out. Dave Stewart, rangeland director for the Forest Service in the Southwest, recently described conditions in New Mexico's Santa Fe National Forest as "the most horrible example of grazing administration I've ever experienced."

Stewart said ranchers and land managers are responsible for the range conditions.

"You can't say the problems we are having today are all because of the drought. They are not. Certain management practices that were considered OK 10 years ago are not OK now," he said.

"Does it mean that the people out there operating the ranches are bad people? Certainly not. But there are people who have not been able to keep pace with the need for better management. This requires intensive effort by ranchers. We have continuous grazing without the ability to move the cattle around. That, over time, has a damaging effect on the watershed and the land."

Here in Arizona, in the national forest that officials say is the hardest-hit by the drought, an unpre- cedented destocking is taking place over 3 million acres. Virtually all cattle have been removed from the forest and will remain off for at least a year, or until Alford and others determine there is enough grass growth to support cattle.

Ranchers, who lease 270 million acres of land in the West, chafe at accusations of overstocking and overgrazing. It is the prolonged drought, they say, that's to blame.

"The condition of the land is that it is in a drought--it has nothing to do with management practices and nothing to do with things that occurred 100 years ago," said Charles "Doc" Lane, a fourth-generation rancher and director of natural resources for the Arizona Cattlemen's Assn.

Politicians have responded by opening more public land to grazing and by expanding federal assistance programs to ranchers.

In May, the Bush administration approved grazing on tens of thousands of acres enrolled in the government's Conservation Reserve Program. The program sets aside agricultural land for use as wildlife habitat. It also includes watersheds in need of restoration in seven Western states. Congress is considering a legislative rider that would exempt ranchers who lease public land from conforming to requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.

In Arizona, ranchers received $2 million in drought aid from a state fund intended to purchase land for open space. This month, Congress approved a $6-billion emergency aid package for drought-affected farmers and ranchers. And last week the Department of Agriculture announced a $752-million package to aid affected livestock producers.

Conservation groups are accusing ranchers of leveraging the drought to gain public funds to solve a problem they themselves created. The groups cite $237 million in drought-related federal aid doled out to cattle ranchers during the 1990s.

"In these intense periods of drought in the West, ranchers shift from overgrazing the public lands to mining the public trough," said John Horning, executive director of the New Mexico-based conservation group Forest Guardians. "None of these conditions have come about overnight. It's been 100 years of overgrazing."

Government officials who supervise grazing on public land are beginning to agree. Even though it can be politically dangerous for them to say so, many are now conceding that unmanaged grazing might have permanently altered the landscape.

Managing cattle responsibly can be a labor-intensive, highly scientific endeavor. Environmentalists and government land stewards say that many in the current generation of ranchers who use public land can't or won't do the work required to protect the range.

Often, the physical labor is too difficult, Stewart said, and some ranchers simply don't agree with biologists who insist on time-consuming cattle management to preserve the range.

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