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Disenchantment in the Land of Enchantment
Ranchers, politicians and the BLM fight environmental reform in New Mexico
by Steven T. Taylor/© 1999 Cascadia Times
In New Mexico, the institutional bonds between cattle ranchers, the BLM and the state's congressional delegation run very deep. The alliance has protected public lands ranchers at nearly every turn, according to local watchdogs. Consequently, many of New Mexico's federal lands -- much of it arid and therefore, some say, unsuitable for grazing -- have suffered severe ecological damage.
The chief advocate for ranching interests in New Mexico is Sen. Pete Dominici, R-N.M., an influential member of the Senate Energy and Resources Committee, who has ties to some of the many corporations that own western ranches. In 1996, Dominici help shepherd the Public Rangelands Management Act through the Senate, which, in essence, repelled attempts to reform bargain-basement grazing fees and extended rancher subsidies. Opponents called the legislation the "rancher-takes-all bill."
In an editorial published by the conservative Washington Times, Senators Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., and Judd Gregg, R-N.H., lambasted the bill as a cash cow for the livestock industry. In criticizing grazing fees that are and have been far below private market rates, the two fiscal moderates used this comparison: "[I]t costs less to graze a 600-pound animal on public land than it does to feed a dog, cat or parakeet courtesy of the American taxpayer."
Also a supporter of more recent congressional efforts to protect ranchers, Dominici collected $17,900 in grazing-related political action committee campaign contributions from 1991-1996, according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. That's nearly twice as much as the average received by other Senate members.
Furthermore, Dominici tried to table a compromise amendment by Bumpers and Gregg that would have raised fees for the very largest corporate livestock operators. (The amendment eventually failed.)
Dominici and others routinely say they are fighting for their constituents' jobs. But in New Mexico, only 2,129 jobs are directly provided by public lands ranching, according to a recent study by Thomas Powers, economist and professor at the University of Montana.
Lawsuit Hits BLM Policy in New Mexico
Against this backdrop, environmentalists realize they face powerful foes when they square off against BLM bureaucrats, ranchers and their influential supporters in Congress. But that hasn't stopped the challenges. Last August, two environmental groups sued the BLM for failure to conduct environmental analysis on the effects of grazing on a congressionally-designated national conservation area (NCA) in New Mexico.
The El Malpais National Conservation Area, located on a semi-arid desert about 70 miles west of Albuquerque, is known among New Mexico residents and eco-tourists alike for its spectacular natural beauty and geological diversity. One of its most dramatic features is the La Ventana Natural Arch, or "Hole in the Wall."
In 1987, Congress also recognized El Malpais's unique values by designating it an NCA and charging the BLM with managing the 262,690-acre area. Legislators directed the agency "to protect [the area] for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations," citing its "important geological, archeological, ecological, cultural, scenic, scientific and wilderness resources." Congress also designated two wilderness areas within the El Malpais.
Congress didn't prohibit the BLM from allowing ranchers to graze cattle in the area. As it turned out, the area was being severely overgrazed on several land tracts within the area, especially on an allotment operated by former New Mexico Gov. Bruce King. The BLM has acknowledged the damage. "The place was not very well managed in the last couple of years [that King held the permit]", says Gene Tatum, BLM rangeland management specialist.
Amid public pressure, the agency pulled the cattle off the damaged land, providing it a much-needed rest. As a result, it began to heal. "It made a resounding recovery," Tatum says.
Congress, however, did order the agency to create a management plan for the area within three years of El Malpais's designation as an NCA. And, the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) requires an environmental impact statement (EIS). The agency has failed to do both, according to the suit filed by Forest Guardians and T and E Inc.
In fact, in a letter to the Forest Guardians, the BLM stated it would develop a management plan and conduct NEPA analysis before allowing a new permittee to graze the area. "When a new grazing management plan for this allotment is developed, additional environmental analysis will be completed," wrote Michael Ford, BLM District Manager.
One month later in December 1996, BLM area manager Hector Villalobos wrote a letter to the new permittee, FNF Properties, a real estate company from Illinois, congratulating it for gaining the right to graze cattle. The letter also warned the corporate ranchers about the public interest in preserving the area. "Even though Congress recognized livestock grazing as a legitimate use of the NCA, the public questions its compatibility in areas designated for resource protection." Villalobos also wrote that the agency "would like to have an allotment plan in place before grazing resumes... We will give developing a management plan with you our top priority."
The Return of Cattle
The problem is, according to the suit, some 2000 head of cattle began grazing on this allotment and eight others before BLM completed either a plan or an EIS. "The failure of the BLM to undertake thorough analysis prior to the issuance of these nine allotments is a blatant violation of NEPA," the plaintiffs charge. In declaring "BLM's activities in this case contrary to the requirements of NEPA," Forest Guardians and T and E are asking that the cattle be removed until the assessment is completed.
Forest Guardians' John Horning says the BLM missed a perfect opportunity to perform real rangeland reform and adequately assess the effects of grazing on the valuable natural resources within El Malpais. After all, he points out, the area had begun to recover from the damage done by former Gov. King's cattle. "Here was the perfect opportunity to do some site-specific analysis of grazing before allowing grazing to resume," he says. "Yet, it seems every single BLM decision made on grazing is one that rubber-stamps the status quo."
Tatum says the BLM is in the process of reviewing the suit and is providing the Department of Justice with information. Most interestingly, though, he says his office had done a NEPA analysis -- some 16 years ago in 1982. "Until recently, we felt like the NEPA we had was adequate," he says. But, he adds, "things are changing and we wanted to update our prior assessment."
Horning says the management of the area in question is typical of BLM operations nationwide and its failure to institute true rangeland reform. "It's a classic example of the backroom deal making that goes on between BLM and ranchers," he says. "This situation is emblematic [of BLM managers]. Rather than saying, 'We need to change our attitude because the land is in horrible shape,' they are [leaning] on a document that was published more than 16 years ago to discharge their obligation. It's outrageous."