More than 100 public lands ranchers filled a conference room at the DoubleTree hotel in Flagstaff last Friday for the chance to hear from the newly appointed head of the U.S. Forest Service.
Chief Tony Tooke was appointed to the position last month, making Flagstaff one of his first visits since he took on the leadership role.
The occasion was the annual conference of the Public Lands Council, an advocacy organization for cattle and sheep producers who hold public lands grazing permits.
Tooke, an Alabama native, said he’s had to learn a lot about the West and western issues so far and promised to visit as much of the nation’s 190 million acres of national forest as he could. He also committed to streamlining federal environmental review processes and working on issues like vacant grazing allotments and increasing the Forest Service budget to pay for programs besides fire suppression.
Tooke had an overwhelmingly positive message for ranchers as well.
“Grazing is a very important management tool for rangelands and I greatly appreciate what you do and what you do in your stewardship roles,” Tooke said.
People who graze on public lands help provide clean water, prevent and suppress wildfires, restore rangelands, control invasive species and benefit wildlife, Tooke said.
He lauded ranchers for sustaining natural resources and helping the Forest Service “deliver conservation on the ground.”
“You provide jobs, you provide impacts to local economies, rural communities, you have a commitment to stewardship and we share in that,” he said.
When it comes to grazing in northern Arizona, program managers for two local ranching operations said Tooke’s comments ring true in some senses, but in other ways fail to acknowledge the potential for grazing to have a detrimental impact on the landscape.
Grazing in the region certainly has the potential to benefit grasslands, said Jeremy Krones, program manager with the Diablo Trust, a partnership between the Flying M and Bar T Bar ranches.
In studies conducted at the ranches by researchers at Northern Arizona University, moderate grazing was shown to result in more and healthier plant diversity and more carbon sequestration than no grazing or overgrazing, Krones said.
But historically, the situation was vastly different. When Bar T Bar owner Judy Prosser’s grandfather first saw the pasture south of Interstate 40 that the ranch now occupies, it was decimated by overgrazing and had to be completely fenced off before it could recover, Krones said. Other research papers have documented serious overgrazing that led to “catastrophic” cattle losses and widespread range deterioration in Arizona around the turn of the 20th century.
In short, the environmental benefits that Tooke mentioned in his talk should all “come with asterisks,” said Ed Grumbine, who directs the Grand Canyon Trust’s Land Program and oversees the nonprofit’s North Rim Ranches, which cover 830,000 acres north of the Grand Canyon.
“Big picture statements about ‘this works here therefore it works everywhere’ are just inaccurate and it’s one reason why the West has a history of overgrazing,” Grumbine said.
While studies from California have found that moderate grazing increases biodiversity, for example, “I don’t know any study that yields similar results in other parts of Southwest,” he said.
In terms of water resources, Grumbine countered Tooke’s statements that grazing public lands are “critical” to water quality and water quantity.
There is much more evidence of grazing having negative impacts to riparian streamside areas and to springs unless ranchers install fences to keep cows out of sensitive water sources and manage the animals’ use of surface water, he said.
“If that surface infrastructure is lacking, you can really screw up aquatic ecosystems with a very few amount of cows,” Grumbine said. “That’s one of the tragedies of the West, especially the more arid parts where we live.”
Grazing’s impact on fuels and fire risk is also a mixed bag, he said. Cows eat grass and trample dry matter, which decreases the amount of fine fuels that could carry fire to thicker woody fuels, Grumbine said. But in ponderosa pine forests, it is that ground vegetation that helps carry and sustain low-severity ground fires that are crucial to maintaining forest health and keeping tree densities in check. Heavy grazing in the past is then part of the reason those forests are now overstocked.
Most literature also suggests forage utilization should be less than the federal government allows in grazing permits, Grumbine said. The Grand Canyon Trust, which has a goal of restoring and protecting the area the North Rim Ranches occupy, stocks only about half the animals allowed by its permit. The Flying M Ranch, on the other hand, uses about 90 percent of its stocking rate.
The discrepancy is just one example of the variation in landscape productivity and land management best practices across the region.
Generalities are suspect, Grumbine said.
“They just don’t get at the lived experience of ranchers in the West.”