Does The West Have A Death Wish?

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Rainstorms, infrequent but torrential, drive the soil into instant rivers, creating “water that is too thick to drink and earth that’s too thin to plow.”

Grass roots and decaying blades form a mulch that act like a blotter. With grass in place the soil saturates more slowly during a rainstorm, and the excess water is released over the surface of the ground and to underground sources. In this way, explained one range expert, water is “walked downhill”; it won’t run off. Once grass is gone, it is difficult to reinstate. The ground is drier, and what soil remains is depleted, with no organic matter to enrich it. Sagebrush and other wood-stemmed bushes or even trees are introduced. These do not nourish cattle, nor do they hold the soil or water in place the way grass does. Sagebrush, for instance, needs two to four times more water than grass to survive and, through its long taproot, can reach farther down to draw what it needs, depriving the shallowrooted but more important vegetation of required moisture. In 1934 an ecologist by the name of F. E. Clements reported that his studies showed that sagebrush naturally belonged in 25 percent of the area it then covered. Everywhere else it was an intruder, a “gangster in the grass,” as one range specialist called it. In 1974 the Bureau of Land Management estimated that sagebrush covered more than 70,000,000 acres of rangeland in the West, or half the area used for grazing. In the Southwest excessive grazing has turned many places into desert, capable of supporting nothing but the toughest weeds. One study conducted at the University of Arizona in 1965 blamed cattle for the unconquerable invasion of mesquite. By browsing among the mesquite, cattle ingested seeds, which then passed through their intestinal tract ready to germinate once eliminated. “As many as 1,617 mesquite seeds have been found in a single cowchip,” the study stated. Thus mesquite spread as the cattle moved. The study concluded that, taken as a whole, the change in vegetation in parts of Arizona “constitutes a shift in the regional vegetation, of an order so striking that it might better be associated with the oscillations of the Pleistocene time than with the ‘stable’ present.” The shift occurred within eighty years, the researchers said, dating its start to the 1880’s, when cattle grazing was at its height in that state.

When the National Forest System was created under President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905, the timberlands it included were west of the hundredth meridian: east of that point the forests were all privately owned and had been logged or burned out years before. What there was left to conserve lay in the West, in the public domain. By 1908, near the end of Roosevelt’s term in office, 150,000,000 acres of forests had been set aside, primarily for the protection of the wood and watershed. The speed with which Roosevelt acted enraged the West, whose leaders hadn’t been consulted ahead of time about his plan. It was a primary example of the gradual change in land policy from government giveaway to government retention, in the name of all Americans. Within the national forests that Roosevelt set aside were some 80,000,000 acres of grazing lands, which were the grassy parks among the trees, and the lush stream bottoms of valleys with timbered slopes. Approximately 85 per cent of the West’s water is derived from 25 per cent of its land, chiefly that within the national forests, where most of the snows fall and the rivers start. Nearly all the key watershed lands are also primary grazing lands, creating a natural basis for conflict. For more than thirty years this land had been used freely by stockmen. It was a tough tradition to buck. The stockmen continued to use the national forests as they always had.

And then in 1906, Gifford Pinchot, the controversial chief forester, instituted a grazing fee and permit system. If lumbermen had to pay for the timber they cut on the national forests, so should stockmen have to pay for the forage of their sheep and cattle, Pinchot reasoned. Trees were no longer there for the taking; nor was the grass. The charge per head per month was low, but it nonetheless infuriated the stockmen. They tried legal means to withdraw authority from the Forest Service, but to no avail. Still, the Forest Service was generally pressured into nonenforcement of its own rules, and most instances of trespass were overlooked. After all, it was easy to believe the National Forest System had been created to protect trees, not grasses. The relationship between the two was not well understood. And the science of range management had not yet been born.

A world war, drought, and depression kept the Forest Service from taking any remedial steps to save the deteriorating ranges and watersheds. The service dreaded confrontation with powerful ranchers. What the grazing lands most needed was time to heal, which meant a reduction in the number of livestock allowed in the national forests and a shortening of the grazing season. But asking ranchers to cut back their herds was like asking them to throw part of their bank balance away, foresters thought, not realizing that cutbacks were more likely to pay off later.