Mary O'Brien

With most eyes on the massive fossil fuel and roads-everywhere features of the Public Lands Initiative (“PLI”) of Representatives Bishop and Chaffetz, there’s a doozy that takes up only a small space in the 65-page proposal but sprawls throughout all the areas they propose for protection: locked-in livestock numbers.

Rep. Bishop opines that the rules his bill lays down for livestock grazing within areas proposed for protective designations are standard wilderness language. Not. In all PLI-proposed wilderness, national conservation areas and special management areas, Reps. Bishop and Chaffetz propose to halt management of livestock by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM). How?

A bit of background: The Wilderness Act of 1964 describes wilderness as “… an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man…” and which “… generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable…” But a heavy-footed imprint into that condition was included to achieve the Act’s passage through Congress: the Wilderness Act provides that livestock grazing “. . . shall be permitted to continue.”

After the Colorado Wilderness Act of 1980 and the Arizona Desert Wilderness Act of 1990 included guidelines for what “shall be permitted to continue” meant, Congress issued similar guidelines for future wilderness designations. These are the guidelines that Rep. Bishop claims he has simply included in the Public Lands Initiative.

So let’s compare three of the congressional wilderness guidelines with PLI’s version, and then throw in one brand new, bull-in-a-china-shop PLI invention:

Guideline #1: Any reductions in numbers of livestock in wilderness areas must be made on the same basis that reductions might be made outside of wilderness – e.g., because other species are being extinguished, or because springs are drying up.

PLI version: There will be no reductions in the current numbers of livestock.

Guideline #2: Motorized equipment can be used to maintain livestock facilities (e.g., stock tanks, fences), only “where practical alternatives do not exist.”

PLI version: Motorized equipment can be used to maintain livestock facilities, period.

Guideline #3: New facilities can be constructed, but only for resource protection “rather than to accommodate increased numbers of livestock.”

PLI version: New livestock facilities can be constructed, period.

PLI’s bull-in-a-china-shop invention: The Forest Service rule requiring efforts to maintain native animal and plant species that are in trouble on the forest won’t apply to livestock grazing decisions. In other words, when push comes to shove, livestock will trump native species.

By prohibiting Forest Service protections for other species, Rep. Bishop is admitting that livestock can and do threaten the existence of particular native species, for instance, desert tortoises on the allotment where Cliven Bundy ran cattle, or bighorn sheep if domestic sheep are nearby. Hence his need to hobble the Forest Service and BLM in order to preserve livestock numbers.

What this all means is that if PLI were to become law, its newly created wilderness areas, national conservation areas, and special management areas would receive less protection from livestock damage than they had before PLI existed. Temperatures are rising, droughts are deepening, weeds are spreading, springs are drying up, wildlife populations are declining, but cattle numbers and damage would be untouchable.

None of this is to imply that well-managed and conservative livestock grazing can’t coexist with species of concern, clean water, aspen, and other resource values on appropriate portions of our American lands. But to shackle Forest Service and BLM managers with locked numbers of cattle regardless of how much cheatgrass is present, or how damaged and manure-polluted creeks are, or how vulnerable to trampling a rare wildflower population is, means these lands are far better off without Rep. Bishop’s and Rep. Chaffetz’ brand of protection.

Mary O’Brien lives in Castle Valley and is Utah Forests Program Director with Grand Canyon Trust, a Colorado Plateau conservation organization.