Who cares? Ranchers and federal agencies work together for good of the land
The Bureau of Land Management is in charge of 245 million acres, in the West, and grazing is allowed on 145 million of those acres. For those 145 million acres, the BLM issues 18,000 permits. That’s 18,000 people—give or take—who work with the BLM to make a living and take care of the land.
Though Cliven Bundy and his conflicts with the BLM have been in the spotlight for weeks, other ranchers have their own stories to tell.
Ray and Linda Gilbert
Ray and Linda Gilbert ranch in northwestern South Dakota. BLM holdings in the Dakotas are relatively small, and are managed with Montana’s. The Gilberts run on small tracts of BLM land that are intermingled with their private property. The BLM land isn’t fenced out, so there’s no clear delineation between their private property and the the BLM land, and isn’t accessible without crossing their private property. That doesn’t change the fact that it is public property.
“Our BLM land isn’t in one big block, like a lot of people think of public property. It’s in small chunks and we manage it the same as we do our private property,” said Linda.
Linda has been involved in the Public Lands Council and works with ranchers from all over the country on the Cattlemen’s Beef Board (the beef checkoff oversight committee) “We feel like BLM tends to worry a lot about multi-use and recreational use, which is understandable. But they sometimes forget that the best use is most important. In our area the best use truly is grazing, but it has to be monitored and it has to be a reasonable use,” Linda said.
The Gilberts are involved in a grass monitoring program through the Natural Resources Conservation Service that helps ranchers make the best use of their property, maximizing the land’s productivity as well as improving the range and soil health. The BLM has been very interested and supportive of these efforts, Ray said.
In the Gilberts’ case the BLM has never attempted to reduce the number of animal unit months, but the Gilberts want to make sure they can demonstrate their grazing practices don’t warrant any such action.
“We’re proving that wildlife and cattle can coexist,” Ray said. “We’re showing that when conditions are good for cattle they’re good for wildlife, which is good for hunters and other people who use the land for recreation. The monitoring we’re doing has shown that we’re increasing the number of desirable native grass species, which improves habitat for the sage grouse. We want to show that eliminating or reducing grazing isn’t the answer when there’s an endangered species issue. For generations, cattle have coexisted with these species, and from what we can see, we are making the habitat better.”
That may not be the case in every situation, Linda said. “I believe that grazing can be the best use of land in some areas, not all. At the end of the day it is multi-use land. There are a lot of issues that have to be dealt with, but I think balance is important.”
Ray says he feels like the BLM is understanding of the issues they deal with, and in turn, he realizes a government lease comes with a certain set of responsibilities. “They’re very conscious that we, as lessees, have to make it work for us. They realize we all have to work together.”
The Gilberts are responsible for all costs associated with improving or maintaining the BLM property, including fencing and water. They also understand that there’s a process they have to follow when they want to make a change. “We have to get approval before we do anything on the property,” Ray said. “If we want to put in a fence or a water line we have to let them know, and they have to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement. It doesn’t happen overnight. We have to allow at least six months before we know if we can go ahead, but they’ve been pretty willing to work with us on that kind of thing.”
Ray says his perception of one of the major issues between ranchers and the BLM is reducing the AUMs on allotments. “I’m sure there is a time to do that,” Ray said. “But I don’t think restricting grazing is the first thing we should do when a species is listed as endangered.”
Monte Eayrs and his family have been running cattle on BLM land in eastern Montana since before it was BLM land. One side of his family arrived in the area in 1899, the other side in 1910.
“We have an agreement with them on how we use the allotment. It’s not written in stone, it has some ‘slack’ in it,” Eayrs said. “You’re dealing with Mother Nature, so there can be some changes in everyday use.”
Eayrs’ BLM land—mostly rolling, grass-covered hills—isn’t in high demand for recreation. “There isn’t anything to view,” Monte said.
Earys says that in his area, at least, the management decisions do reflect what’s in the best interest of the land “You see most of these places in good condition. The grazing always varies from year to year, the same as the moisture. We’ve never had to adjust our grazing because of moisture, but some do.”
Though Eayrs says overall his interactions with the BLM have been agreeable on both sides, he is concerned about the potential endangered species listing of the greater sage grouse and what impact that could have on his federal grazing permits. He’s been attending meetings and providing input on that issue, as well as on a proposed free-ranging bison issue.
Eayrs grants that a lot of public policy is driven by groups that don’t have a full understanding of all the elements that have to be considered in managing property in the West. “I don’t know how you’re going to change their minds,” he said. “I guess they could spend a week with us.”
He’d like to be able to show the public how a rancher manages the land. “I have three sons, a daughter and a granddaughter. The intent is for it to somehow be passed on to them, or some combination. So there’s not much advantage of abusing, ruining, destroying—we’re not going to do any of those. So we maintain it as well as we can. I think the BLM has provided the flexibility to make good management decisions,” he said.
Guardians of the Range
Kathleen Jachowski has twenty-five years experience with public lands issues, the last 10 as executive director of Guardians of the Range. Guardians of the Range, located in Wyoming, is a “501(c)3 organization dedicated to sound science and community partnership in public land management. We address grazing issues on behalf of permittees on the Shoshone & Bighorn National Forests and the Cody / Worland / Lander BLM Resource Management area,” according to their website. Membership in the organization is entirely voluntary.
“We get things on the radar and keep them on the radar to get things done on both the policy side and the on-the-ground projects,” Jachowski said. “You can be in assisted living before you get anything done if you don’t keep pushing.”
Jachowski said sometimes the hold-up is on the part of the agencies, sometimes it’s the ranchers who aren’t following through. “Gone are the days when you can sit down with the district ranger and just talk things over and go do something. There’s a process and NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) is a huge part of everyone’s lives.”
While the ranchers and federal agencies are communicating more openly and are on the same side of some of the issues they’re dealing with, it wasn’t always an amicable relationship, Jachowski said. “There used to be a lot of contention in this part of the world with the BLM. That has improved. I don’t know if it will continue, with this political climate, but we try to facilitate the communication and get stuff done.”
Jachowski said one of the major issues is that there is less and less support for multiple use on federal land. She pointed out that the 1960 Multiple Use and Sustained Yield Act, as amended declares, “it is the policy of the Congress that the national forests are established and shall be administered for outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed, and wildlife and fish purposes…”
“It’s basically telling the Americans to quit arguing over the land because they were fussing and fighting,” Jachowski said. “The government said these are multiple use lands, we can do a lot of different things on this land. It’s not just about ‘we’re pretty, we have mountains and elk.’ It’s not just about ‘get in the RV and come out here.’ It’s also about mining, harvesting timber, raising cattle and sheep. It’s about creating a good middle class lifestyle for the rest of the country. It’s about one simple thing, sharing the landscape. The wild horse extremists don’t want to share. The extreme environmentalists don’t want it. The ranchers don’t mind sharing.”
Jachowski has seen the federal agencies’ budgets cut because of a loss of revenue from land use—oil and gas, timber sales, etc. She thinks one way to gain public support for the use of the land, rather than the preservation of it, is through marketing. “Those industries have not understood soon enough or deep enough the critical need for ethical marketing of their true story. They need to market their true story so Americans don’t have to have a lecture or a debate. Don’t make it hard-hitting, as in we wear white hats, they wear black hats. Tell them why we should be proud to do this stuff—do it right, but dammit, do it. They have paid an incredible price for not marketing their stories.”
Linda Gilbert agrees. “Leasing BLM land is not a God-given right,” she said. “We’ve got to start communicating our story and showing our concern. We need the public to know that the people on the ground, the ones using it every day, are the best people to monitor it.”
Mark Jacobsen, the public affairs specialist for the Montana/Dakotas District of the BLM said the BLM wants people to be involved, especially in the development of resource plans. The resource plans are planning documents that direct how the BLM will operate on the landscape.
“The BLM has bent over backwards to involve the public,” he said. “That’s not just Joe Public, that’s grazing commissions, organizations, tribes, elected officials all working together in coming to the best possible solution in the management efforts. These people are no slouches. They spend a lot of time going over these things and talking about the pros and cons of particular strategies, the socioeconomic implications locally and regionally.”
The BLM has a legal obligation to honor the plans put forth by the local government, unless there is a compelling reason why they can’t, he said.
Karen Budd-Falen, an attorney from Cheyenne, Wyo., has been working to train local governments on how to create these plans so they can have more input into the management of the local, federally-held lands.
“Washington can never know how things should be in the West,” Budd-Falen said. “They have to have this local input if they are going to make good decisions. For citizens and local government to whine about them not listening to us, is not correct. We need to have the tools to know how to participate. Under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Federal Lands Act, the federal government has to consider locally-elected officials before they open it to the general public. If the federal government can’t make its policies consistent with local government, they have to explain why. Local government writing land use plans is absolutely key in pushing dialogue and pushing our views.”
One way BLM seeks local input, Jacobsen said, is through Resource Advisory Councils. According to the BLM website, each RAC consists of 12 to 15 members from diverse interests in local communities, including ranchers, environmental groups, tribes, state and local government officials, academics, and other public land users. Each council must include representatives of three broad categories: Commercial/commodity interests;Environmental/historical groups (including wild horse and burro and dispersed recreation); State and local government, Indian tribes, and the public at large.
“The RACs exist to advise the BLM on the public’s sentiment and priorities and interests from people who are actually on the ground with those groups,” Jacobsen said.
Though the council members come from a variety of backgrounds and represent widely varying interests, Jacobsen said he’s seen positive interaction within the councils.
“We don’t really see polarization. I think a lot of it has to do with the maturity of the participants. If they get this far along they’re aware of different viewpoints and opposing or supporting points of view. They aren’t going into this thinking this is the only way. They listen to what other people have to say. It’s interesting to see them come to a consensus and form a recommendation. I’ve never seen them produce a recommendation that wasn’t endorsed by the bureau on a local level. It’s well thought-out and is an accurate picture of what the citizenry on the ground feel.”
Ray Gilbert is one of those citizens on the ground providing input. He was appointed to the Eastern Montana/Dakota RAC at the beginning of 2014.
“Hopefully I’ll be able to make an impact and get some ideas in there,” he said. He wants to bring his grass monitoring experience to the table, suggesting that changing the way the grazing is managed can have a more positive impact on all species than removing cattle for the protection of endangered species like the greater sage grouse.
“I have a positive feeling that we can have an influence,” he said. “I think one of the big problems is trying to get local areas to come up with management plans. I think a lot of people don’t realize how much power the local people really do have.”