May 5, 2004

Deming Headlight

Opinion: Laney approach bad but message ...

by Win Mott

As you enter the Gila National Forest, about an hour's drive north of Deming, you may see a sign proclaiming that is is the "land of many uses." That concept has consequentially made it the land of many arguments. The Gila, like most national forests, is a big place with a lot of things which various people want. The conflict in those wants plays out somewhat in all public lands including the Bureau of Land Management lands in Luna County, but the national forests seem to draw the focus. This may be because national forests are not simply government land. They have been specifically identified by the public as natural treasures to be preserved and thus are held to a higher standard by the public, similar to national parks.

This is the final column of three about the Diamond Bar, a national forest allotment about one hundred miles north of Deming, which is as much a symbol of the debate over national forests in the Southwest as the spotted owl was in the Northwest. The Diamond Bar is 145,000 acres of beautiful pristine (or formerly pristine, depending on your viewpoint) forest wilderness. The first permit for cattle grazing on the Diamond Bar was issued in 1907. Since 1996, the allotment has been in litigation most of the time, with the former permit holders claiming they do not need a permit since they have a historic right to graze cattle there, whereas the Federal Government holds it has the right to forbid or allow grazing as it pleases on public land. It recently rounded up the cattle of the Laneys, the former permit holder, claiming they were trespassing since the Laneys do not have a current permit. That is the short version. If you want further detail, see Desert Sage for March 31 and April 14.

There are two basic questions in the wider debate: what are national forest for, and how do we care for one? The first goes so deep that many of the viewpoints come from basic assumptions. Many generations of ranchers in national forest areas have assumed that cattle grazing is the obvious normal use of the land. The established nature of this enterprise is concrete enough to affect ranch property values and to cause banks to lend money based on the permit's value. Some allotments have been grazed for longer than the entire time the Gila National Forest has existed. Since the rancher has usually been the only visible human enterprise on the land, the assumption that it is the rancher's land is an easy one over time, especially since when he bought the small "base property" of private land required to hold a permit, that property included the value of the permit in the price, and it is the rancher, not the Feds, making the payments on the bank loan.

Increasingly, others want a say in the use of national forests. Most do not live here, but assume a responsibility to ensure a portion of America stays wild and undeveloped. If they see any role for humans in the forests at all beyond guarding their preservation, it is perhaps ecotourism with as few marks from the presence of our species as possible. Clearly, the land of many uses is in for an argument. Even among those who see a role for cattle, some think the forest has been badly overgrazed in far too many places and needs a much lower number of cattle around.

The Laney approach of direct challenge on the ground is not a solution. The Federal Government has clearly been given the legal stewardship of the forests by the courts. While the Forest Service has not been aggressive to assert itself, the Diamond Bar case proves that it will when it has to.

Today it is also carefully monitored by environmental organizations which have also proven that they are not shy to go to court to push the Forest Service into action if necessary. ABut the environmentalists are not satisfied with the present state of things either.

Cutting back the number of cattle seems initially like a reasonable compromise. The Forest Service in fact has already done that to some extent. But the compromise bumps immediately into another reality. The ranching business is as likely to fade away as to be shot out of the saddle by environmentalists. The globalization of the economy means that beef can be produced cheaper overseas, despite the subsidy given by the very low cost of permits. Few ranchers make a living solely by raising cattle. Other employment or savings are necessary to make up the shortfalls. Cutting back on the number of cattle allowed on an acreage simply worsens the economics.

Some creative folds have come forward with a solution. The National Public Lands Grazing Campaign proposes a buy-out of the permittees. In the words of Campaign Director, Andy Kerr, the buy-out "acknowledges the property interest which the rancher has in the permit through its value in the base property. It would be a voluntary buy-out which would pay $175 per animal unit (i.e. cow and calf) per month of grazing in the year, in return for surrendering the permit to graze permanently." For example, if a permittee had 100 head of cattle and grazed them ten months of the year (because most pasture can't be used all year long), he would have a buy out of $175,000 ($175 x 100 x 10 = $175,000). The Federal Government would save money long-term, since the cost of administering the grazing program far exceeds the revenue it brings in, so the government benefits when a permit is discontinued.

This idea is presently before Congress (HR 3324, with a smaller proposed pilot project in Arizona, HR 3337). An appropriation of $100 million is suggested. In some ways, it is like an employment buy-out where an employee is offered a lump sum of money to leave. These often must be reviewed carefully to see if the employee will really be ahead by accepting. HR3324 is closer to a no-brainer. Given the shaky economic state of cattle ranching and the generous price of an animal unit, most permittees would probably be well advised to take the money.

Economics is not, of course, the whole story. Many ranch for the lifestyle rather than the money. However, a lot or ranchers might see the benefit in such a buy-out. It is a win for the rancher, at least economically. It is a win for the government, which saves money in the long run. It is a win for the land which gets a well deserved rest and chance to recover. It is a win for the environmentalists who see their advocacy for the land and its wild inhabitants succeed. Local communities do not lose, since the increasingly marginal local benefits of the cattle industry, due to its squeezed economics, can be replaced by things like ecotourism. The $100 million would not begin to buy-out all permittees, so there would be time to see the impact of the program before it becomes drastic. The bill still has to make its way through the legislative process and be signed by the President so we are not there yet. But is is certainly the best solution in sight. I hope our Congressman sees it as worth supporting.

Win Mott is a regional columnist who lives in Mimbres.