The Forest Service is once again pinned down in a shootout over grazing in the Southwest. If the agency moves one way, it dodges lawsuits from environmental groups that say cows imperil endangered fish and birds. If it steps the other way, it faces fire from the livestock industry and its powerful allies in Congress.
The latest chapter followed a stormy
hearing by the House Resources Committee on how the Endangered
Species Act is implemented in the Southwest, home to more lawsuits
over endangered species than any other region.
July 28, Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young, who chairs the
committee, asked agency officials to do a background check on
staffers to see if they have ties to environmental groups. And in a
letter to Southwest Regional Forester Eleanor Towns, Young asked
for a list of staffers who have donated money to or joined the
Santa Fe-based Forest Guardians or the Southwest Center for
Biological Diversity, a Tucson, Ariz., outfit (HCN,
Critics called it a witch hunt. "Don
Young is the Joe McCarthy of the "90s," said Sam Hitt of Forest
Guardians. "He's fomenting a green scare that is intimidating
public officials and preventing them from doing their job."
Steve Hansen, communications director for
Young's committee, explained that his boss was trying to determine
whether Forest Service employees are leaking information to
"When you have accusations
that federal employees are leaking information to organizations
that are suing the federal government, then it's very relevant in
finding who's doing this and being able to put a stop to it,"
But Regional Forester Towns doubted
she could meet Young's request for names. Forest Service attorneys
were deliberating over the request, but, said Towns, "My gut tells
me that somehow I'd be crossing the line with (a) potential for
(violating) freedom of speech (and) privacy act kinds of
The congressional pressure is a result of
an April agreement between the Forest Service and the
environmentalists. Environmentalists withdrew a preliminary motion
against the agency when the Forest Service agreed to give ranchers
until Aug. 15 to pull cows off of 300 miles of riverside areas in
the Apache-Sitgreaves and Prescott national forests in Arizona and
the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. This was to protect the
Southwestern willow flycatcher, an endangered songbird, and three
threatened fish species: the loach minnow, spikedace and little
"This is the beginning of the end," said John Horning of Forest
Guardians. "The agreement pulled the heart out of those allotments.
You can't really graze in that country without access to those
The livestock industry tried to appeal
the agreement, saying the Forest Service had cut a backroom deal
with environmental groups that would put ranchers out of business.
When the appeal failed, ranchers went to Don Young for help. And on
Aug. 14, the New Mexico Cattlegrowers Association filed suit
against the Forest Service in a federal court to have the
settlement thrown out.
Idaho Republican Rep.
Helen Chenoweth, head of the House Subcommittee on Forests and
Forest Health, even held a hearing in Espaûola, N.M., on Aug.
15 to hear testimony about the impact of grazing and logging
restrictions on northern New Mexico. One hundred and fifty ranchers
and loggers showed up.
"I think it's a bunch of
shit. (The Forest Service and environmentalists) are sleeping in
the same damn bed," said rancher Ray Fowler. The Forest Service had
ordered Fowler to move 790 of his cows away from the East Fork of
the Gila River on the Gila National Forest this summer. Now, he's
selling off some of his herd. "It's putting me out of business,"
said Fowler, whose family has run cattle in the region since
Nothing to see
Caught in the middle of this barrage of
hearings, lawsuits and accusations, the Forest Service is trying to
keep its head low.
"To my knowledge, no cattle
came off national forests as a result of that settlement (with
environmental groups)," says Dave Stewart, head of range management
for the agency's Southwest region in Albuquerque. "Forest Guardians
and the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity want people to
believe some massive change is occurring out there. But it's no
different than what we've been doing for the last four years."
Stewart acknowledges that lawsuits from
environmental groups jump-started grazing reform in the mid 1990s,
and that cows have moved away from streams this summer. But the
agency has known for years that it is not in compliance with its
own environmental standards, he says, and it is in the slow process
of correcting that. "This is in response to just good resource
stewardship," he says. "It's not happening because of the
Endangered Species Act."
This September, the
Forest Service plans to release a study of the impacts of grazing
on endangered species on 700 grazing allotments in the Southwest.
Stewart says the study shouldn't change things
John Horning calls the study a farce. "I
see the pendulum shifting" away from cattle and toward
environmental protection, he says. "But that's because of our
litigation, not because the Forest Service has seen the light of
* Keith Easthouse
reports for the Santa Fe New Mexican. Greg Hanscom is an HCN
You can call
* The New Mexico Cattlegrowers Association at
* John Horning with Forest
Guardians at 505/988-9126;
* Dave Stewart with
the U.S. Forest Service at