WASHINGTON, Jan. 20, 2016 - The takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon’s Harney County by a small band of mostly out-of-state armed ranchers is shining light on a lot of American ranchers’ mounting frustrations with federal oversight of the 438 million acres administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service.
While this scrutiny has value, most of Oregon seems to want the occupying troupe to leave peacefully; the local sheriff, the governor, and even some who joined in occupying the refuge headquarters in the first place have pleaded with the group, calling itself Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, to exit.
Meanwhile, many in Oregon, where more than half the land is federally owned, and across the West share some of the occupiers’ anger. Among them is Republican Rep. Greg Walden, whose district includes the Malheur refuge.
Walden favors ranching interests and is a friend of Dwight and Steve Hammond, ranchers and constituents who this month were hit with mandatory five-year prison sentences for setting fire to 139 acres of forested BLM land while burning off some of their own acres, they said, to reduce the potential for wildfire. Prosecutors allege the Hammonds lit the fires also to cover up deer poaching on government land. The refuge takeover began as a peaceful protest against the Hammonds’ sentences and morphed into the armed takeover at the refuge.
Spurred by the drama back home, Walden quickly took to the House floor for an impassioned speech lambasting what he called the excessive regulation and mismanagement of public lands and a too-frequent refusal by the agencies to work with ranchers toward good grazing lands management, including the clearing of overgrown, hazardous forest. He discounted the significance of 139 remote acres burned in the Hammond case, noting that federal managers frequently conduct such preventive burns, often including adjoining private lands, and that wildfires hit 3.5 million forest and range acres in Oregon in 2012 and nearly 1 million last year.
Walden is angry, for example, about the BLM’s refusal to provide fencing, as prescribed in the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act of 2000 that designated a wilderness area near the Malheur refuge but was supposed to provide fencing to accommodate grazing in some adjacent areas. Now, Walden complains, environmental interests want President Obama to set aside another 2.5 million acres (nearly twice the size of the state of Delaware) next door in Malheur County as a national monument. Much of the county has long been federally controlled grazing lands, so he says the history of federal forest management only heightens ranchers’ fear of the monument designation and its implications for grazing access.
And on a national scale, says Ethan Lane, executive director of the Public Lands Council, a lobbyist for ranchers on public lands, “it’s the onerous environmental reviews and processes (that) make it impossible for public lands ranchers to maintain the lands as effectively as they would like to.”
At the ranch level, both federal land managers and permitted ranchers “know what is best for the land” and have often been dealing with the same pastures for many years, Lane says. “Ranchers are an essential first line of defense against buildup of invasive species such as cheat grass that cause these intense wildfires that we’ve seen across the West,” he says, and, for example, they maintain and protect the wells and small dams that provide water in the dry West for both livestock and wildlife.
But, he says, required multiyear regulatory processes so often preclude timely management action. Along with the Endangered Species Act (ESA), strictures on activities to protect plant and animal habitats or forbid the taking of predator animals, he says, such regulatory red tape has accumulated and become “the vast majority of the problems facing ranchers” on public lands.
Take, for example, the ranchers in the Little Missouri Grazing Association in southwestern North Dakota. There, Forest Service managers often order annual adjustments to operations, such as the number of cows and length of the season cattle can be grazed on the allotments. Also, the Forest Service revised the overall management plan for the entire Dakota Prairie Grasslands in 2006 to implement new rules to protect threatened wild species.
But, Lola Hewson, the association secretary, says progress is far different for the ranch-specific allotment management plans (AMPs) the Forest Service sets for each of its allotments. “We are currently working under allotment management plans (AMPs) that are 25 to 35 years old.” For example, that means no changes to fences to improve grazing rotations or protect streams, or to dig a new water well, she says, “until these allotment management plans are brought up to date. We can do repairs and maintenance; that’s all. We have to just keep the status quo.” She says the Forest Service now expects to start updating the AMPs for her members soon.
Many ranchers purposely avoid putting livestock on public lands because of the weight of federal regulation and the inflexibility of managing such land associated with doing so. That’s despite the very cheap rental rate of $1.69 a month per cow (though higher in some cases) on federal lands. The rate has changed little since 1978.
Northern Oregon rancher Keith Nantz, for example, says there are Forest Service grazing allotments all around him, “but I don’t want to go that way because of the challenges involved with it.” So he pays more to rent pastureland from private owners. He is located about 90-minutes east of Portland, and he says pressure for recreational uses of the land, grazing restrictions stemming from ESA, the fencing off of river areas from cattle, and other environment-related changes make grazing for Forest Service lands there a huge headache.
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