Facts take a beating on the range

  A New Mexico State University press release saying part of the controversial Diamond Bar allotment was not overgrazed has critics crying "pseudoscience."


The 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 Bar.


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 agency's maximum.


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.


"It's one 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 West."


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.


"I 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.


"It 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 furlough.


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 taking.


"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."


Jerry Holechek, 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, 5/1/95).


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 pointed out.


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 Domenici.


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."


*Lisa Jones





Tony Davis contributed to this story, which is part of a series on land-grant universities funded by the Ford Foundation.