It’s time for us all to be grown-ups regarding livestock grazing. The Forest Service is asking the public (i.e., you, me) to send in (by September 29) photographs, information, and thoughts on the impacts of livestock grazing on any or all of the three national forests in southern Utah: Manti-La Sal, Fishlake, and Dixie. They’re also inviting us to send material about “social, economic and ecological values” relevant to livestock-related ecological conditions on the forests. A thought: It won’t be particularly useful to get on our soapboxes about how livestock need to be everywhere in the forests (currently 97 percent of the three forests’ 4.6 million acres are assigned as “active grazing allotment”, including virtually all of the Manti-La Sal National Forest) and that anyone who is concerned about compacted, bare soil; erosion; fouled or diverted water; depleted biodiversity; or incised creeks is simply on a vendetta to end all public livestock grazing. It also won’t be particularly useful if we rant against all public-lands grazing, subsidies, marginal economics, or the Congress-set $1.35 for a cow and calf pair to eat for a month on the forests.
Here’s a good model for being a grown-up: The 2012 Final Report and Consensus Recommendations (available on the web) of the diverse 12-member Collaborative Group on Sustainable Grazing for U.S. Forest Service Lands in Southern Utah. The Group’s recommendations, if followed, would improve, but not eliminate, all livestock grazing on the three forests.
Between now and Sept. 29, the Forest Service isn’t really asking for proposals for how grazing should be managed on the three forests. That request will come later this fall when the forests initiate public scoping for an Environmental Impact Statement process to amend their 29-year old forest plans for grazing. Instead, right now, they’re asking for our information (e.g., photos, observations, data) about livestock-related conditions on the forests. They’ve already taken a first crack at describing some of the conditions of concern they find related to livestock grazing. Their observations in Initial Review of Livestock Grazing Effects on Select Ecosystems of the Dixie, Fishlake and Manti-La Sal National Forests (available on the web) are admirably candid.
One odd feature is the agency’s initial suggestion to focus comments on “riparian vegetation; lakes, ponds, springs, and wetlands; physical stream channel habitat; and sagebrush grasslands.” It’s odd because conditions of concern are also found in meadows that are not sagebrush or riparian; under aspen and ponderosa forests, and elsewhere. But you can address that issue in your comments as well, if you wish.
Why is all this a big deal? The forest plans of these three forests have not been revised since 1986, and in many ways, livestock grazing on these forests has not changed for decades. In fact, some permittees note that they’re the third generation of their family on a particular national forest allotment.
Global warming was not a consideration when grazing permits were issued decades ago. When “60-percent utilization” was established as a standard for consumption of grasses (which generally leaves about 1.5-to-2 inches height on a native grass) neither the needs of bees, butterflies and hummingbirds for larval plants and tall flowers, nor the needs of small mammals and ground-nesting birds for cover were considered. Certainly the need for un-grazed areas as a comparison to grazed areas in order to comprehend the consequences of the livestock grazing was not addressed.
Diverse stakeholders were not included at the table when grazing decisions were made, though how livestock are managed affects whether or which fish and birds will be present; whether springs and creeks are disappeared into pipes; whether predators will be present in the food web; whether meadows will be reduced to unpalatable lupine and invasive dandelion; and whether creeks are lined with willows or invaded by Kentucky bluegrass.
Kudos to the Forest Service for displaying some of the downsides of their current and past livestock management; soliciting information from the general public; and finally initiating a long-overdue process of rethinking how and where cattle and sheep will use these three forests.
Please take the time to share your observations, information, and understanding of livestock conditions on the Manti-La Sal, Dixie, and Fishlake National Forests. Send your best information to firstname.lastname@example.org. Written comments should be addressed to Attn: John Zapell, Fishlake National Forest, 115 E 900 N., Richfield, UT 84701, or via fax: 435-896-9347.
Mary O’Brien, a botanist and resident of Castle Valley, is Utah Forests Program Director (email@example.com) for the Grand Canyon Trust, a conservation organization focused on the Colorado Plateau.