A New Mexico State University press release saying part of the controversial Diamond Bar allotment was not overgrazed has critics crying "pseudoscience."
allotment straddling two wilderness areas has been home to squalls
among ranchers, the Forest Service, the university,
environmentalists and politicians for years (HCN, 7/24/95). In the
wake of persistent disagreements, the Forest Service and the
university hired an independent scientist last summer to monitor
conditions on Black Canyon, one of the main pastures on the Diamond
The scientist, Dee Galt, found the area
grazed to capacity and recommended removing the cattle. His visual
estimate found the cattle were eating just a hair more than the
Forest Service allowed. But another part of his survey yielded a
grimmer statistic: the weight of grass clipped from inside and
outside cages indicated cows were eating 13 percent more than the
So when university range
specialist Chris Allison wrote a press release proclaiming Galt's
study found no evidence of overgrazing, reaction was fierce.
Allison is part of the university's Range Improvement Task Force, a
state-funded group that environmentalists and some academics have
long suspected of a pro-ranching bias.
of the most horrible pieces of pseudoscience I've ever seen in my
life," fumed Bob Ohmart, a zoology professor at Arizona State
University. "If the (task force) is a reflection of that
department, then that university is in dire trouble." Ohmart has
studied Black Canyon's riparian area and considers it "one of the
worst cases of riparian degradation that I've observed in the
Another press release was distributed
late last month to clarify the study's findings. But both Allison
and task force coordinator John Fowler say they stand by the
accuracy of Allison's original release, which relied entirely on
the visual survey's more positive findings.
thought it would be confusing to have all those numbers out there,"
Allison said, adding that he thought the visual information most
closely reflected conditions in the canyon. "I have much more
confidence in the consultant's ability to estimate use than to
analyze three (cages)." But he said if he had it to do over again
he would have included the data taken from the cages: "I'll take
the blame," he said.
There is plenty of blame
leveled at Allison and the 19-year-old, nine-member task force. The
Silver City-based environmental group Gila Watch, whose director,
Susan Schock, calls the Black Canyon "absolutely hammered by
overgrazing," is calling for the group's dissolution.
Forest Service Range Conservationist Chuck
Sundt, who has worked on the 227-square-mile Diamond Bar for two
years, wasn't expecting the study to be publicized at all. He read
the press release in his local newspaper.
hit me cold," he said. "(Allison) didn't even give us the courtesy
of letting us review it." The Forest Service footed the bill for
the 100-page, $4,000 study, while the university contributed
technical support. Allison said he brought the document for Sundt's
perusal, but he wasn't there. Sundt was at home due to the federal
Like Ohmart, Sundt is an alumnus of New
Mexico State in Las Cruces. He says he and others are concerned by
the direction the task force seems to be
"At NMSU we were trained to protect and
enhance the resource, and this is what we're trying to do," Sundt
said. "We need to be supported in that respect, and I think the
task force isn't supportive ... it appears they're supporting the
industry at the expense of the agencies - and the resources.
Ideally, we'd like to work in harmony with the university in
solving the problems out there."
an outspoken range-science professor at New Mexico State who has
often been at odds with the task force, called the press release
"outright misrepresentation ... It destroys our credibility to have
something like this come out."
Holechek says he
has sympathy for Diamond Bar ranchers Kit and Sherry Laney - the
ranchers say Forest Service restrictions have cost them $250,000
over the last two years - but that biological issues must remain
separate from economic issues.
"If we in range
try to twist biological information to make a case to help someone
with an equity issue, then that's the beginning of the end for us,"
he said. "That's when we become prostitutes."
Arizona State's Ohmart attributes part of the
task force's credibility problem to its close ties to the state
legislature, which tends to be more meddlesome than, say, federal
sources of research funding. He said it's much easier for
scientists to be progressive in universities like Arizona State,
which is outside the land-grant university system (HCN,
Jerry Schickedanz, New Mexico State's
associate dean for agriculture, countered that the integrity of
university research depends on the credibility of the scientists
involved, not on whether it is a land-grant university. Land-grant
universities are mandated to do research that's pertinent to
agriculture in their state. That makes their work more visible -
and more controversial - than research from other universities, he
At New Mexico State, the task force
tries not to take sides, he said. "We did the study that raised the
grazing fee on state lands, and my phone rang off the hook with
angry ranchers." Although Schickedanz hadn't yet investigated the
details of the current controversy, he said "I think (Allison) is a
professional. I think he does good work, and I guess I'll have to
be shown otherwise."
Meanwhile, at the Diamond
Bar allotment, the increasingly famous press release is among the
least of Kit Laney's problems. "We think it's kind of
entertaining," says the fourth-generation rancher. The current flap
won't alter the fact that the Forest Service has already told him
to keep his cattle out of Black Canyon during the 1996 season.
Galt's study was commissioned to help maintain the area only
through last year. In Laney's quest to lessen such federal control
over the allotment, he has enlisted the help of everyone from New
Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson to New Mexico Republican Sen. Pete
Laney said if he did what the Forest
Service wanted, he'd go bust in a year. "If (they) think we're
going to go out of business and sacrifice everything we've got just
so they can beat themselves against the wall with these problems,
(they can) think again."
Tony Davis contributed
to this story, which is part of a series on land-grant universities
funded by the Ford Foundation.