In a precedent-setting decision in February, Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas' office ruled that congressional grazing guidelines for wilderness don't allow construction of "a substantial number of new improvements' in a wilderness. This overturned a 1995 Gila National Forest decision authorizing 15 earthen impoundments for Diamond Bar rancher Kit Laney in the Gila and Aldo Leopold wilderness areas.
Although the proposed water holes were meant to move cows uphill from degraded rivers and streams on the 227-square-mile grazing allotment, environmentalists contended the tanks would degrade upland areas by causing more cattle pressure on them.
The Diamond Bar ruling clearly favored wilderness values. The chief's reviewing officer, Sterling Wilcox, said that grazing was not a "historic use" under the Wilderness Act, and grazing does not require "equal consideration" to the resource needs within a wilderness.
This makes it harder to build large watering tank developments in wilderness and easier for Forest Service officials to reduce cattle numbers when the land is in bad shape, agreed Forest Service official Dave Stewart, Arizona State University law professor Joe Feller and Bill Worf, a retired Forest Service wilderness chief who now is president of the Montana-based Wilderness Watch group.
Susan Schock, director of Gila Watch, the Silver City group that led the fight against the tanks, was pleased by the decision. "These guys in the Gila National Forest tried to convolute and manipulate the Wilderness Act. They tried to kowtow to the cattle industry," she said. "But the chief caught them and slapped them down."
Bill Myers of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association said the decision was another step toward carrying out what he called the environmentalists' agenda to get livestock off public lands.
"We're getting whipsawed," said Myers. "On the one hand, they're getting livestock out of riparian areas. On the other hand, you can't construct new watering facilities away from them. That begs the question: Where will the livestock drink?"
Gila National Forest Supervisor Abel Camarena has 180 days to rewrite his 1995 decision. Rancher Laney says Thomas' ruling, if upheld, would spell bankruptcy. He says he can't survive on 300 head.
He told the Associated Press that if forest rangers come to impound his herd, "they better bring a gun. I'm not going to go. They will plant me here." But he added, "We will do everything we possibly can to avoid that type of confrontation because that gains nothing."
* Tony Davis
The writer works in Albuquerque, New Mexico.