A Shameful Legacy

The Shocking Mismanagement of America's Public Lands

An essay in hypertext by Scott Bidstrup

"There is as yet no social stigma in the possession of a gullied farm, a wrecked forest, or a polluted stream, provided the dividends suffice to send the youngsters to college. Whatever ails the land, the government will fix it."
--Aldo Leopold, in Round River




The above words by one of the founders of the modern U.S. Forest Service seem to sum up the views of many in the past who viewed the public lands as a boundless resource to be used as needed and discarded when exhausted. It was the frontier mentality. But alas, those days are long gone.

For those of us who have spent a great deal of time on the public lands, the massive forest fires of the summer of 2000, and especially the great Arizona Rodeo-Chediski fire of 2002 came as no surprise. Tens of thousands of acres of charred forest in the Sequoia, one of America's most treasured national forests, did not surprise me. Merging complexes of "Type 1" fires, visible from space, burning on the Payette, an exquisitely beautiful forest in the Idaho panhandle, did not surprise me. Complaints by forest fire "incident commanders" that the lack of resources and the accumulation of slash left by logging operations was wreaking havoc on their control efforts, did not surprise me.

You see, I've lived on the American public lands. For six years, they were my home as I took advantage of the "14 day" camping law. I've spent time on public lands in nearly every forest in every state in the West. And I've been shocked at what I've seen.

I understand the problems faced by public land managers. I grew up in ranching country, and spent most summer weekends of my childhood in the summer home my family owns on the Targhee National Forest near Yellowstone. I have worked in the forest fire fighting industry (yes, it really is an industry), and I have lots of friends who are foresters or other public lands managers. So I know their problems. I can appreciate their dilemmas.

Yet the public lands are held in trust on behalf of the American people. They are not the property of the monied interests who have always, since the land management agencies were founded, effectively governed the policies by which public lands have been managed.

This essay is not intended to be a criticism of most of the employees of the forest service or the Bureau of Land Management. Most are dedicated employees who work for those agencies as much to make a difference as to make a living. And it has been my experience that many, if not most, are discouraged by the policies forced on them by ignorant bureaucrats and self-serving politicians in Washington. When I described my ideas for forest management to one forester, for example, tears welled up in his eyes, and he told me he'd dreamed all his life of managing a forest that way. But he can't, and neither can the other dedicated, hardworking managers who really understand the problem and want to solve it.

Environmentalists have typically focused their efforts on the mismanagement of the forests by the U.S. Forest Service, which is an agency of the Department of Agriculture. It's not surprising to me that the Forest Service culture is not really governed by a "maximum sustained yield" mentality, even though that has been the objective of the Department of Agriculture in it's focus on farming and agriculture, but rather at meeting quotas established by bureaucrats who often have connections with the industries their decisions benefit. Originally, when the Forest Service was founded, forests were vast, covered much of the continent, and were much more important for their economic resources than for their recreational and watershed values, which at the time were insignificant.

Today, the situation has changed. Forests in the west have shrunk, through overharvesting and bad management, to less than five percent of what they once were. Population has grown by orders of magnitude, placing intense new pressures on the land, not just for timber, but as places of recreation and sources of water and minerals. No longer can we, as a nation, afford to look at the forest system as merely a source of timber, to be managed on a "maximum sustained yield" basis.

Land of Many Uses

We've all seen the signs. The signs announcing that we're entering a national forest, with the slogan, "land of many uses." Few people know the origins of that slogan. It dates back to the very early days of the U.S. Forest Service, when the forests were regarded popularly as little more than wasteland, and political pressure existed (then as now) to privatise them to improve the economic benefit to local communities. The Forest Service came up with that slogan to convince the American people that the forests were a resource worth preserving, and to show that the Forest Service had a legitimate function to perform and was needed. It was propaganda.

Today, we are all aware of the multiple uses of the national forest system. Most of us spend time there in recreational uses of the forests at least. Others make our living there, and a few are lucky enough to live there. We all know of the many uses of the forest system.

A few of us have even seen some of the abuse. The overuse by recreation seekers, the dumping of trash and other wastes, the abandoned mines and piles of timber slash left by careless loggers. But few, with the exception of the environmental movement, have taken the time to really analyze the whole situation. And those who do, find without exception, that the public lands are badly mismanaged and are often in a pitiful state.

Land of Many Abuses

The evidence is everywhere. In some places, it is difficult to escape. In the Pacific Northwest, in the coastal mountains of Washington and Oregon, large patchwork quilts of vast clearcuts exist with only the occasional stand of old growth forest remaining. In Idaho, particularly in the Payette and Targhee forests, large slash heaps from clearcuts decades old remain, an eyesore and a fire hazard, even though by law, the loggers are supposed to burn them. This is a particular problem in forests in Idaho, where lodgepole pine, a species evolved to burn and burn hot and fast, are a major source of timber for stud mills. The slash left behind is attractive to firewood cutters, but the forest service, embarrassed by its failure to enforce the law, won't allow it to be cut. So it remains, waiting for a lightning strike to turn it into a major fire.

Clearcutting and replanting to a single, monocultured species, is a common practice in western forests. It is not uncommon, for example, in the Sierra Nevada forests of California, to clearcut communities of many species of trees and replant (if replanting is done at all) to the single most valuable species that will grow there, usually ponderosa pine. This has been widely done on the Sequoia forest, the home of some of America's most treasured trees. I have to wonder if trying to hide this practice is the reason that most forest roads on the Sequoia are closed year round except during the deer hunt in the fall.

This little scene shows many abuses in a single image.
A "seedwood cut" done in the 1960's was replanted to a single
species, ponderosa pine, which failed to prosper.

The natural succession species, incense cedar, tried to
re-establish itself, but couldn't, because the land was
severely overgrazed, and cattle suppressed the seedlings
everywhere except in the road cut, where the cattle couldn't
reach. Overgrazing has suppressed the native grasses, and
the cattle trails (note under the road cut) are leading to
erosion of the hillside. Lack of ground cover is drying
soils, leading to the death of the few remaining mature trees.

Managers hide this kind of abuse from the public by keeping nearly
all forest service roads gated and locked year round, except
during hunting season.

Sequoia National Forest, near Alta Sierra, CA.

When clearcuts are done, it's relatively rare that the forest comes back in a healthy manner. If the forest is old growth, there often aren't enough seeds on the ground for a healthy forest to regrow. If it's young when the clear cut is done, it often comes back to what foresters call "dog hair," a regrowth so dense that you can't walk through it. Young trees a foot or two apart are so crowded that they can't get adequate air, moisture and light, and so are quite weak and very vulnerable to a fire or disease. Planting monoclonal monocultures doesn't help matters any. On south facing slopes in the Sequoia, for example, inadequate soil moisture is present to give the ponderosa trees being planted there a good start. Overgrazing suppresses the natural succession species, incense cedar, so few seedlings of either species establish themselves, leaving the forest floor wide open for weedy shrubs and erosion.

The forest service has made much of the problem of forest management, and how they're hindered by lawsuits from environmentalists. This was something of which a great deal was made during the great Rodeo Fire in Arizona during the summer of 2002. This is a diversion from the real issue, which is timber management, not just timber sales. The normal practice in timber sales is to allow the purchaser to cut any and all trees in the sale area, and in most cases, the purchaser will clear cut, simply because it's faster and easier. The result is what is seen in this photo.

That isn't timber management. Timber management involves the creation of a healthy forest, through prescribed burns, thinning "dog hair" regrowth, careful management of grazing on timberlands, and selective cutting and removal of old, diseased or dead trees. Yes, this is much more expensive, but the quality of timber produced, as well as the reduced costs of fighting wildfires, will more than pay the difference. And the beauty and recreational value of the forests is greatly enhanced.

But the Department of Agriculture has a bureaucratic mindset that, like other agricultural commodities, a forest should be managed for maximum economic return. That creates, in the minds of the bureaucrats, the need to plant to single-species monocultures, often monoclonal, harvested at one time, in bulk, in the same manner that other agricultural assests, i.e., farms, are managed. Sometimes, it is believed that even allowing the forest grow to trees is not considered the maximum economic return. The result for forests couldn't be worse.

In Utah, in the La Sal mountains, a scenic highway winds through some of the tallest and most stately forests of pinion and juniper to be found anywhere, but it's all a sham. It's a practice managers call "beauty stripping." A few hundred yards off the roadway, out of sight of the tourists, the forest has all been "chained" down, the slash left to rot, so that new grass will grow to improve graze for cattle. Dragline chaining, a highly controversial practice, is where a heavy chain is connected between two bulldozers. The dozers are then driven in parallel with the chain between them, tearing down pinion and juniper trees in a wide swath as they go. The resulting wreckage is left to rot where it fell in a tangled, jumbled, fire-prone mess. Needless to say, as it dries, it quickly becomes a huge fire hazard, particularly in late summer when fuel moistures are low. This is a very common practice in the dryland pinion-juniper forests of the Great Basin and the Columbia and Colorado Plateaus.

On BLM land, cattle grazing seems to have top priority in many places, even though the recreational uses of the land have long since outgrown ranching in the importance to the local economy in most areas of the West. This is because the local BLM managers themselves often come from the ranching community.

A favorite example of the abuse of BLM land by ranching interests is found on "Island In The Sky," in southeastern Utah near Moab. The island is a large mesa, surrounded by thousand-foot cliffs, and is several tens of thousands of acres in size. The National Park Service, which manages half of the island, does not allow grazing within the bounds of its Canyonlands National Park. The Bureau of Land Management manages the other half, and it does allow grazing. The results are painfully obvious.


This bizarre-looking
juniper is growing on
"protected" BLM land around
Sand Flats Road near Moab,
Utah. It has been stripped
bare of greenery by starving
cattle as high as they can
reach. Given any other choice,
cattle won't eat juniper.

Note the total absence
of grass around it - undisturbed,
the grass would be three feet
high. Yet the area is severely
restricted to campers, mountain
bikers, etc., under the theory
that the land is "fragile" and
needs "protection." Protection
from what? From people who see
what the BLM grazing policies
are doing to it?

On the part managed by the BLM, only small shrubs, inedible to cattle, mostly purple sage and Mormon tea are the only vegetation in evidence. Soil is bare and gullies are common. As one travels down the road approaching the Park Service boundary, one sees a remarkable transformation. About a mile from the park boundary, grass begins to appear. Closer to the boundary sign, it gets thicker and thicker, until by the time one arrives at the sign itself, the grass is waist-high and almost impenetrably thick.

The only difference is grazing. Grazing management by the BLM office in Moab would seem to take little notice of the deterioration of the land. The island is not the only place that overgrazing is clearly ruining the land - the Sand Flats Road, above Moab, and a favorite of mountainbikers, is another place. Here one can see junipers that have a peculiar growth habit. There are no branches growing below about four feet above the ground, then the tree spreads out almost horizontally. This is a very unnatural growth pattern for the Utah juniper. The reason they grow this way is that hungry cattle, clearly starved for lack of adequate pasture, have been forced to eat the very unpalatable small branches and twigs down low on the trees. An obvious sign of severe overgrazing.

It doesn't end there. Negro Bill Canyon is a favorite picnic spot for residents of Moab, and a favorite hiking and backpacking canyon. At least it used to be. The BLM has allowed grazing rights holders to vastly overgraze cattle in that little canyon, with the result that the riparian gallery forests that used to exist there are now all gone - trampled and eaten by cattle. No more does the stream that runs through that canyon invite skinnydipping, as it's laden with cattle wastes. No longer do you see the ducks and the crayfish and the glowworms that used to inhabit that canyon. They're all gone now. It would be interesting to know how much money the taxpayers got for the destruction of Negro Bill Canyon. But I'll bet it didn't amount to even a hundred dollars.

Ah, you say, but what would we do for meat if cattle grazing weren't permitted? Well, a study by an agronomy professor at Brigham Young University, hardly a bastion of left-wing environmentalism, showed that if all cattle grazing on arid public lands in the west were ended, the result would be a 3% reduction in the meat supply in the U.S. In other words, you'd hardly notice the difference in the price of meat. Arid lands in the west just aren't that productive as a source of cattle graze. At least not anymore.

Of course it wasn't always like this. The vast areas of sagebrush you see today in the Great Basin are the result of overgrazing. Sagebrush was once a fairly rare shrub. It was grass that once dominated the western landscapes. Grass so high and so thick, that when the Mormon pioneers first arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, their diaries indicate that they had a hard time finding a place to camp the first night.

With the pioneers came their cattle. It was the first real industry to take root in the west. The grass was high and thick, and cattle could be readily driven out to railheads in Wyoming, Texas and the midwest, and so cattlemen came. What few failed to appreciate, however, was that the native grasses were fragile and could not withstand heavy grazing pressure. Within twenty years, the grass that had attracted the cattlemen was gone, and it had been replaced. Replaced by what had been an inconspicous little shrub that had always been there, but had been held in check by the faster growing grass. That shrub was sagebrush. A plant that is unpalatable to cattle and has little nutritional value, it exploded across the west. It has come to so dominate the landscape that most Westerners assume it has always been there.

Seeking to repair some of the damage, cattlemen introduced a grass from the steppes of Russia, called cheetgrass (or sometimes junegrass). Fast growning and quickly maturing, it was intended to provide early spring graze before the native grasses were mature enough to withstand grazing. What the cattlemen hadn't counted on was the fact that cheetgrass readily hybridized with native grass to produce a grass that was highly invasive, had little nutritional value and was an extreme fire hazard where it grew well. This grass has become the dominant grass anywhere in the west that soils have been disturbed.

Another inadvertent environmental disaster was the accidental introduction of Russian thistle on the hoofs of imported cattle. Commonly called tumbleweed, this native of the Crimea had no natural enemies here, and so it spread, within just a few years, to become one of the dominant annuals of the arid west. Anywhere a soil disturbance allows its seeds to settle, tumbleweed will quickly sprout and grow into a round, aggressively thorny plant that, with the first autumn winds, will break off its roots and roll in the wind, often for miles. When it comes to a fence, it will pile against it, in some areas as high as telephone wires.

These environmental changes seem to conspire with land mismanagement to cause problems. Overgrazing on public lands removes native grasses and churns up the soil, allowing tumbleweed to get a foothold. Sagebrush, a dry shrub that burns readily, spawns wildfires that can burn over hundreds of thousands of acres, costing millions of dollars to extinguish. Where it invades forest edges, it drives back the forest by discouraging seedlings and burning them in the wildfires it spawns. And many of the native species of grass such as Indian ricegrass have been completely extirpated from the environment in much of the west. This extirpation of native grass is why sagebrush still grows in highway right of ways where grazing has not allowed for decades.

Vast areas of sagebrush, piles of tumbleweeds that run for miles, land bare of native grasses, and vast areas of thick, dry cheetgrass are recipes for uncontrollable wildfires.

This is the high price, literally in hundreds of millions of dollars, we are paying for our mismanagement of the western public lands. And as we have seen, it's not the only price. Loss of major areas of incalculable recreational value are just a part of it. Loss of forests has led to a loss of watershed for our growing western towns, and a loss of native fish in what few streams are left.

A Better Way

There is a way to end all of this. It will require political sacrifice and wise planning, but I believe it can be done.

It is possible to have back a lot of what we and our forefathers have robbed from the land.

I propose the following as a way of solving some of these problems and beginning a new regime of managing the public lands for higher values than just marginal grazing and rapacious logging.

A Plan for Non-Forested Arid Western Lands

We'll get nowhere fast if we don't change the way we're doing things. I have a few ideas as to what I think, based on my experience with the west, we should do:

A Plan for Forested Lands of the West

Our forests are our treasures. Beyond just the timber and minerals they provide, they inspire us, offer us solitude, a place for introspection, recreation and the companionship of others who are drawn to them as we are. We should recognize that fact and completely rethink the way we manage our national forests. Here are my thoughts on what we should be doing, and still accomodate the economic interests that are so vital to our nation's spiritual, as well as its economic future:

Much To Be Done

In short, there is much to be done. We need to begin to do these things now, as soon as possible, so that we can have public lands we can be proud of to hand off to future generations.

Let us not be afraid to make the difficult political choices that lie ahead in rethinking our public land use policy. We can fix much of the damage that has been done. It won't be easy, but we can do it. And in doing so, we'll not only have healthier and more beautiful places to visit, but we'll have a proud legacy we can hand on to our children.


Books I recommend (which, if you wish, you can buy from Amazon.com by pursuing the links here):
The Waste of the West by Lynn Jacobs is probably the best and most thorough analysis of the public lands abuse problem I've yet seen. Highly recommended.

Who Controls Public Lands?by Christopher McGory is a good analysis of how public land policy came to be the way it is.

Cadillac Desert is Marc Reisner's excellent analysis of how water policy by misguided bureaucracies has forever altered the course of public land management. It became the subject of a PBS special by the same name.

Beyond the Beauty Strip by Mitch Lansky is a good example of industrial forestry taken to the limit. The book is about forests in Maine, but applies equally well-if not more so to forestry management practices in the west.


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