One BLM district grabs the bull by the horns

  One hot spot for grazing retirements is the Upper Deschutes area of south-central Oregon, where ranchers have been butting heads with a burgeoning population of newcomers, prodding the Bureau of Land Management to move cows off the land.

Private development is skyrocketing in the area: The town of Redmond is expected to grow from 16,000 people to 80,000 in the next 15 years. Ranchers face open gates and cattle-harassing dogs, while some of the area’s new residents have little patience for the occasional cow roaming the neighborhood or the golf course.

"My staff is spending increasingly large amounts of time dealing with that kind of thing," says the BLM’s Robert Towne, who is overseeing a new management plan for the 400,000-acre Upper Deschutes Area, part of the Prineville District. "That’s not really where we want to spend people’s hard-earned (tax) dollars."

As a result, the agency has proposed new rules for the district, which encompasses about 125 grazing allotments. Heeding the advice of a citizens’ committee, BLM managers have developed a "grazing matrix" that assigns values to grazing lands. Some are tagged as having high grazing value; others as having high conservation value or big recreational conflicts. If a grazing permit overlaps with one of the latter, the permittee can ask the BLM to retire the allotment.

While the new policy — the first of its kind — will make it easier for ranchers and conservation groups to cut buyout deals, that’s more of a side benefit than an intended goal, says Teal Purrington, a BLM range management specialist: "We do not offer them any money, but if they find other ways to make money, that’s up to them."

One group eager to pony up some cash is the Oregon Natural Desert Association. The group recently bought a grazing permit in the Badlands area that it will relinquish to the BLM, which has agreed to retire grazing on the 18,000 acres covered by the permit. So far, that rancher is the only one to knock on the conservation group’s door. But Executive Director Bill Marlett expects a wave of interest when the new policy for the Upper Deschutes receives final approval — likely in September.

Marlett also expects the innovations of the Prineville District to spread. "I think it’ll snowball," he says. "There’s a lot of private funds out there available for this effort. But unless these roadblocks are removed, that money is just going to be held up."