'em up, move 'em out
Citizen lawsuits to protect western landscapes and rivers from destructive
cattle grazing are hitting their targets
by Steven T. Taylor/© 1999 Cascadia Times
On either side of the Cascade Range, the jagged spine that separates
Oregon, are two different topographical worlds. To the west, lies the
lush, rain-drenched forests for which the state is known. But travel east,
over Mount Hood, Mount Jefferson and the rest of the rocky vertebrae,
and the moist climate dries. The terrain levels off into bucolic grasslands,
meandering streams, roaring scenic rivers and, farther east, high dry
Its here where cattlemen since the mid-19th Century
have grazed their herds along stream sides and river banks, in meadows
and on arid, flat expanses of private and federal land.
It's also here, perhaps more than anywhere in the West, where cattle
grazing has taken a devastating toll on the land, according to several
environmental assessments. Tens of thousands of acres of federal land
in Oregon are overgrazed. The term "overgrazing" refers to land
where cattle endanger wildlife on the ground and choke fish runs in the
water, trample once-tranquil meadows, threaten the existence of rare native
plant species, pollute rivers, and rip apart riparian areas. "Grazing
is the number one destructive force on the western landscape. Bar none,"
says Bill Marlett, executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association
And, it's here -- as it is in other areas of the fragile and damaged
western range -- where ranchers and environmentalists are embroiled in
bitter range-land battles. The ranchers say they depend on, and deserve
to retain, their historic grazing rights on federal land. They view any
attempt by "outsiders" to rest the range as a direct attack
on their livelihood, and circle their wagons to repel legal salvos lobbed
from the environmental community.
In the last two years, lawsuits have come fast and furiously. And they
are hitting their targets -- namely, the policies of the Bureau of Land
Management (BLM), the federal agency charged with managing the lands in
That is, for the third time since early 1997, a federal judge has ruled
against the BLM for allowing cattle to run rampant over federal land and
for failing to protect congressionally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers
in Oregon. The decision, issued last November on litigation to protect
the Owyhee River, carries far-reaching ramifications for the environment,
ranchers and the BLM alike.
Significantly, the recent string of court decisions buoys the hopes of
those who wish to change federal grazing policy, while sending shivers
down ranchers' backs. What's more, the facts revealed in each case speak
volumes about the BLM and the way it does business.
The first defeat for the Oregon livestock industry came from bench of
U.S. District Judge Ancer Haggerty in February 1997. Haggerty rejected
a BLM management plan on the Donner und Blitzen River, which runs through
pastures and canyons in southeastern Oregon.
He ruled that it would not repair the heavy damage grazing has caused
the river, and ordered the agency back to the drawing board. Until a sufficiently
protective plan is developed, the court enjoined grazing along the river.
In making this landmark decision, Haggerty cited data showing that nearly
50 percent of fish habitat was in poor or fair condition, and that many
native plant habitats were also near ruin -- all caused by cattle grazing
along the river's banks.
For two grazing seasons now, the Donner und Blitzen has had time to rest.
The results: A remarkable recovery along riparian areas, and the reappearance
of dwindling populations of wild redband trout.
"The case has had national impact," says Pete Frost, attorney
with the National Wildlife Federation, one of the plaintiffs in the case.
"It's been precedent-setting in terms of what river management plans
must say and do."
Cattle Feces and Endangered Species
On the heels of that court victory, environmentalists filed suit against
the BLM to protect the John Day, another Wild and Scenic River that is
treasured by nature-lovers, rafters, boaters and fishers, and is the home
of or water source to several species of fish, animals, and rare plants.
But, according to one BLM employee, who asked to remain nameless for fear
of retaliation from his employer or the ranching community, the river's
ecosystem's health is in grave jeopardy.
"Some of the riparian areas are in pathetic condition," the
employee says. "The main stem of the North Fork is in really terrible
condition. The overstory species are deficient, which means there isn't
as much shade on the water. [The resultant] high water temperature hurts
the fish. Understory species are deficient -- these are species that anchor
the banks during high flows. All of this is caused primarily by livestock
grazing and [defacating]."
The BLM employee blames his own agency for failure to protect
the river. "The BLM has known for a lot of years what those conditions
are," the source adds. The litany of charges listed in the lawsuit
against the agency is staggering especially considering both the
degree to which the BLM has allegedly committed environmental violations
and the length of time it has reportedly broken the law.
The agency has "illegally failed to prepare comprehensive plans
to protect and enhance the natural values of [the river system], and it
has illegally failed to establish detailed boundaries for each river area,"
according to litigation filed by the plaintiffs, among them ONDA and NWF.
The suit also charged the agency with siphoning off river water to irrigate
grazing lands for ranchers, a common practice on federal lands throughout
the West. This diversion has reduced the river's flow, harming
water habitat and essentially slicing off its banks, which degrades native
"You can canoe the John Day and see 50-inch diameter pipes
sucking water from the river," says ONDA's Marlett. "Half the
flow of the John Day is diverted for hay for cows. The things we do in
the West to benefit livestock is astounding. It's not just that cows graze
on public lands. On private lands, you've got all those ranches raising
hay by sucking out water [from rivers]."
The BLM awards permits for nearly 60 allotments on or near the
river, and many of those are "in poor or fair condition, and many
have never been evaluated to implement management standards" as the
law requires, according to the suit.
BLM management disagrees that it has failed the river, saying the area
is, in fact, making an environmental comeback. "We have information
to demonstrate, through monitoring studies, that we are restoring and
recovering the natural resources out there," says Harry R. Cosgriffe,
Central Oregon resource area manager.
Cosgriffe does admit, however, that his office hasn't met its
legal obligation to develop a plan required by the scenic rivers law.
"There's no doubt about it; we did not complete the plan by the legislative
deadline," he says, adding that any plan it comes up with will use
"the best science and practices."
One consequence of the BLM's alleged negligence goes to the heart of
what many people consider synonymous with Oregon, the jewel of many a
Northwest main course: salmon.
The John Day is the longest free-flowing river in the Columbia River
Basin, and therefore critical habitat for steelhead and chinook salmon,
which are genetically pure wild breeds. Yet, with cattle defecating in
the river and trampling its banks, the water temperature has increased
to dangerous levels. It simply gets too hot for salmon.
"I don't give a damn if a cow is out there on the banks of the John
Day as long as there are salmon in the river," says NWF's Frost.
"I'm a meat-eater and some of my friends are ranchers. That's not
the issue. The issue is whether there are salmon people can fish for and
rare plants my daughter can run around in. That's what's at stake."
Frost points out that one migratory life history of the chinook in the
John Day has already been lost and another is severely depressed and poised
for extinction in the river. The steelhead species is proposed for listing
under the Endangered Species Act.
"If there is not aggressive restoration of the river soon, there
won't be wild salmon in the river," Frost adds. "We're talking
about a few more generations, and then [without ecological intervention]
they won't come back."
Tail Wagging the Dogie?
BLM's Cosgriffe says all this litigation isn't necessary, and that his
office just needs a little more time to work things out with ranchers.
"We're in the process of doing the Wild and Scenic River plan,"
he said. "But it comes to getting the individual livestock operators
to apply the best management practices in grazing their particular allotments."
Critics of the agency say Cosgriffe has the tail wagging the dog, that
as a regulatory agency charged with protecting the public interest and
upholding the law, it should order -- not plead with -- ranchers to clean
up their acts. "We says [sic] we'll hold back on doing the John Day
Wild and Scenic River plan and gather more information, make more progress
in dealing and educating, getting the on-the-ground users [that is, ranchers]
to buy into our management strategies," he explains.
Cosgriffe says he thinks ranchers along the John Day just need to see
examples of how grazing plans can work and then they will happily comply
with recovery efforts. "They want to do the right thing but they
have to see it done," he says. "And they want to make sure [the
plans] aren't going to eliminate their livelihood, which is selling red
Cosgriffe notes that on several places on the John Day his staff's efforts
are restoring the river, bringing green back to its brown banks. He cites
an initiative launched in 1981 to replenish willow trees. "When we
went back [to the location where the replanting was done] in 1995 we found
we were having a substantial recovery of willows," he says.
Just how much recovery in nearly 15 years? "You may think it's not
great but we've [gone] from 0 to 15 percent coverage out there on willows,"
he says. "That's a combination of all of us working together. We're
healing up this river through the establishment of willows."
A BLM employee familiar with the area disagrees that the willow recovery
is "great," and adds willows aren't the only trees in need of
help. "Quite a bit of [the river] is lacking in overstory such as
willows and alders," he says. "And cottonwoods. There are a
lot of cottonwood creeks in the West that have damn few cottonwoods left."
The source adds that birds depend on cottonwoods for shelter.
Last August, U.S. Magistrate Janice Stewart ruled that the BLM
had broken the law by ignoring the Wild and Scenic River Act and failing
to develop a grazing management plan. She said the agency should have
completed the plan in 1992 and set a November 1999 deadline for Cosgriffe
and his office to devise one. It's not clear what actions will be taken
if the BLM fails to meet this deadline.
Although the court reprimanded the agency, it did not ban grazing along
the river until the plan was put in place, something the plaintiffs wanted.
Stewart cited the river's "degradation" but said she saw signs
of the agency changing its policies and wanted to offer it a chance to
prove that it is.
The BLM has agreed to consider a no-grazing policy as one alternative
in its plan -- a first for the John Day area. But NWF's Pete Frost sees
little hope that grazing will be phased out without a clear directive
from the court. In fact, one source told the local press that he expects
few cuts in grazing.
Frost, like others who have observed the BLM's Prineville office,
say Cosgriffe is a primary reason why cattle get special treatment over
fish and the environment. "There are serious problems at the top
of the BLM in the Prineville District," he says. "But I think
its staff are pretty straightforward folks who would do the right thing
if they had the right leadership."
ONDA's Marlett is even more critical. "You can't tell me that Cosgriffe
is going to do anything to piss off ranchers, given the buddy system that
goes on out there," he says. "It's just not going to happen.
He's so entrenched in the ranching community, he's incapable of carrying
out his duties as a public agent."
Cosgriffe denies that he is "selling out to commodity users,"
adding, "I try to make calls as honest as I can. I've never favored
any use. I'm not going to enter into that type of accusation."
He does, however, acknowledge that he's very reluctant to issue any sort
of grazing ban, despite what cattle are doing to the environment of the
scenic river. "You can adjust [ranchers'] stocking rates, their periods
of use and most of them are acceptable to that," Cosgriffe says.
"But if you are going to exclude grazing -- that's going to be a
Although the environmentalists consider Judge Stewart's decision a vindication
of its charges that the agency broke the law, they realize the ruling
is only a partial victory. After all, the court did not enjoin grazing.
They hope to gain another all-out victory, as they did on the Donner und
Blitzen, in their suit over the Owyhee, one in which they have won but
are still awaiting the court's decision on their request to eliminate
Dramatic River Is "Muddied and Fouled by Excrement"
The Owyhee River area is perhaps best and most concisely described in
the suit that aims to protect it. "The canyons of the Owyhee Rivers
are dramatic, awe-inspiring, high-desert landforms, with cliffs reaching
up to 1,000 feet above the sagebrush and grass-covered talus slopes that
form the river's edge," according to the suit. "The Owyhee canyonlands
provide habitat for over 200 species of wildlife."
Congress designated 120 miles of the Owyhee a Wild and Scenic
River in 1984 and added another 66 miles in 1988. Law makers authorized
the most protective classification allowed under the scenic rivers legislation,
requiring that the Owyhee have "watersheds or shorelines essentially
primitive and waters protected," according to language in the law.
"These represent vestiges of primitive America."
But the river, its canyons and the species that live there are threatened
by widespread overgrazing, according to plaintiff ONDA and, more importantly,
BLM's own documents. It seems areas along the river have been a mess for
years, and the many recreationists who visit its banks must contend with
pollution and erosion.
In 1988, for example, a report written by Rich Law, BLM's then-lead river
ranger, provides a candid and alarming examination of the river's condition.
"Very often visitors find that beaches are strewn with feces, riverside
vegetation is severely cropped and trampled, springs and side-streams
are muddied and fouled with excrement and the air is filled with the buzzing
and biting of insects attracted by livestock," according to the report.
"More serious and long-lasting damage, in the form of soil compaction
and erosion, is occurring in several sensitive areas which have received
concentrated and/or long-term grazing pressure."
Law goes on to say that these conditions had been reported for more than
a decade to BLM management, and yet the agency essentially shrugged its
shoulders, ignored the degradation and even refused to adequately evaluate
the extent of the damage. "[A]ny serious effort to monitor and assess
grazing within the river corridor have produced[d] little beyond what
could be characterized as amused indifference," Law writes.
Four years later in 1992, conditions along the river were just as bad
or worse. But some within the agency seemed to feel that the ranchers
responsible for the damage should be coddled, that other members of the
public, including water recreationists, would simply have to raft, float
and camp around the cattle debris, according to an internal memo written
by a range conservationist at the time.
"I have two recommendations,"
the conservationist wrote. "Defer specific actions on this section
of the river until we have more time to nurture these operators [meaning
ranchers] into something acceptable. Or accept the water gaps as being
OK until the public raises hell with us. I would suggest on the second
recommendation that we inform the public as best we can at the launch
sites of the locations of livestock use and impacts so that they can adjust
there [sic] activities around these areas. If floaters know in advance
these areas are hammered then they will have no surprises. But if they
plan to camp at one of these areas and see cow dung everywhere they will
The BLM did conduct an environmental assessment and management plan for
the affected areas, and released it in its final form in 1993. But it
offers no specific analysis and no protection, as federal law requires,
even though the assessment cites overgrazing damage to the river, the
"Despite the acknowledged degradation of [the river's 'outstanding
and remarkable values,' which is congressional terminology] caused by
livestock grazing, none of those impacts are analyzed in detail in the
[plan and assessment]," the suit maintains. "Rather, the BLM's
response is to do nothing, propose to study the situation some more, and
then declare that no significant impacts exist."
BLM Violated Law
But now, more than a decade after it was directed by Congress to do so,
the BLM must act to protect the river. In last November's initial decision,
U.S. District Court Judge James Redden said the BLM violated the scenic
rivers law by failing to conduct an environmental impact statement and
ordered the agency to consider fully the negative impacts of grazing on
Redden wrote that if, upon examination, "grazing proves to be detrimental
to soil, vegetation, wildlife or other values, or is inconsistent with
the 'wild' designation, then clearly the BLM has the right -- indeed the
duty -- not only to restrict [grazing] but to eliminate it entirely."
The plaintiffs are asking the judge to order the agency to eliminate
grazing, as Judge Haggerty did in the Donner case. Ranchers, of course,
adamantly oppose any such ruling. "[That] would be suicide to the
ranchers and is simply out of the question," attorneys for affected
ranchers wrote in a letter to the court. The hearing on a grazing injunction
is expected on March 23 but the court could decide earlier based on each
side's legal briefs.
Marlett says the BLM's failure to obey the law and protect the Owyhee
demonstrates "once again, how the agency's simply can't stand up
to the livestock industry." He also worries how a court decision
to allow even restricted grazing would affect future legal and political
conflicts. "Strategically, if you can't get cows off a Wild and Scenic
River," he adds, "there's no way in hell you're going to get
a cow off an ordinary but still environmentally sensitive stream."
The author is a free-lance writer living in Portland. This article
and the accompanying stories were excerpted from an investigative report
he wrote for Voice of the Environment entitled, "De-Ranged:
The Bureau of Land Management and the Plight of the American West."
© Copyright 1999 by Cascadia Times/All Rights Reserved