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HEAD 'EM UP
MOVE 'EM OUT
A Six Part Series on Cattle Grazing in the West...

Part 1
Head 'em up, move 'em out

Part 2
Breaking the Law for 60 Years

Part 3
Disenchantment in the Land of Enchantment

Part 4
The beef against the BLM

Part 5
Corporate Cowboys Hold Most Federal Grazing Permits

Part 6
BLM makes life rough for Whistleblower

Go HERE for the world's best cow links (many thanks to Larry Walker)

Go HERE to read The Atlantic Monthly's vastly different take on cows

 

Head '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 desert.

It’s 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 (ONDA).

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 question.

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 plant species.

"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 meat."

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 big battle."

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 grazing.

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 be pissed."

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 suit charges.

"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 the Owyhee.

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