Back in 1978, ranchers around the West felt the first tremors of grazing reform. Under legal pressure from environmentalists, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management found much of its rangeland in bad condition and recommended cutting cattle numbers on many allotments.
New Mexico ranchers
wanted a second opinion. They turned to the state legislature,
which created the Range Improvement Task Force at New Mexico State
University in Las Cruces. The only one of its kind in the West, the
six-member task force calls itself a group of "unbiased,
professional, fact-finding advisors and educators."
Almost from the start, the task force has been
accused of being a front for the livestock industry. Whether that
charge is true or not, the task force's history serves as a good
lens through which to view the sticky process of change in the
West's cooperative extension network. It's clear that the task
force loathes cutting cattle numbers, and in high-profile cases it
has usually sided with ranchers. But it has also disagreed with
ranchers regularly on individual allotments and has occasionally
opposed grazing in wilderness.
Lee Otteni, a
former Forest Service and State Land Office employee in New Mexico
who currently works for BLM in Washington, D.C., is one of several
agency officials who consider the task force fair: "They're trying
to keep the industry there and still protect the ground," he
But some task force members openly admit
pro-industry leanings and connections, even as they strive for
objectivity. The task force's first coordinator, Jerry Schickedanz,
had his hand in the management of New Mexico's most controversial
allotment, the Diamond Bar, a decade ago. He reviewed Forest
Service data on the 227-square-mile allotment and concluded it
could support 1,679 head of cattle - more than twice as many as the
Forest Service now considers sustainable.
Earlier, in the late 1970s, Schickedanz had blasted a BLM proposal
to cut cattle numbers to ease a severe erosion problem on the Rio
Puerco near Albuquerque. BLM officials said the Puerco was
responsible for half the sediment that flowed down the Rio Grande,
even though it contributed only 8 percent of the river's water. The
BLM pointed the finger at the 250,000 sheep that had grazed the
area late in the last century. It planned to reduce current cattle
numbers to give the land a rest.
joined another task force member, economist James Gray, and two
other NMSU professors to testify against the cuts. They argued the
reduction would devastate the ranchers' livelihoods, that the
ranchers knew more about the land than the BLM and that the erosion
had natural geological causes.
"I have a degree in zoology
and wildlife, and I have a feel for wildlife needs, but I also have
a feel for an individual who is trying to make a living on the
land," said Schickedanz, who was raised on an Oklahoma ranch. "And
I guess if I had a bias, it would be because of being raised on the
land in looking after it and caring for it from a production
standpoint ... as opposed to what some may term a preservation
point of view."
Current task force coordinator
and agricultural economics professor John Fowler says he's an
"advocate of ranching as a business' but also claims "we are always
on the side of the resource. Most of the time we don't come out on
But a recent blow-up over the Diamond
Bar had critics charging that the task force is far from
resource-oriented. Just before the first of the year, a press
release by task-force range scientist Chris Allison put an
optimistic spin on conditions on part of the Diamond Bar allotment
Arizona State University
ecologist Bob Ohmart, a strong environmentalist, called the press
release "one of the most horrible pieces of psuedoscience I've ever
seen in my life" and wrote NMSU agriculture school dean John Owens
that the task force should be privatized and stripped of state
funding. Owens didn't return phone calls from High Country News
seeking a response.
disturbs me to see employees with (the) university demeaning the
credibility of that university," said Ohmart, a Ph.D. who holds
bachelor's and master's degrees from New Mexico State.
A pro-livestock industry economist at a
land-grant college outside New Mexico echoed Ohmart's concerns:
"The perception (of the task force's bias) is so widespread that it
creates a problem, whether the perception is true or false," said
the economist, who spoke on condition of
Objectivity is hard to maintain in
public-lands grazing anywhere in the West. In New Mexico, it's even
"I don't care how
objective the task force is, it'd be tough for an organization to
make much headway down there because so many ranchers down there
are on the edge of survival," says Clint Peck, the editor of
Western Beef Producer magazine in Billings, Mont., and a former
livestock extension agent.
Sid Goodloe, a
rancher in Capitan, N.M., points out that historic grazing
practices badly hurt the range well before the Range Improvement
Task Force ever got there. Goodloe's particular bane is the
encroachment of piûon-juniper forest onto rangeland, fostered
by a century of fire suppression.
"There's only a fraction of
the herbage and forage for livestock and wildlife there was 100
years ago," he says. He has successfully used fire to beat back the
impoverishing forest. And while he has considered the task force
unflaggingly professional in the 18 years he's been involved, he'd
like to see it be more aggressive when it comes to improving the
"I've done everything I
know how to do to get the task force and the university to promote
prescribed burning," he says. "They finally did it last year.
"The task force is an
absolute necessity. But they've got to be more proactive. They've
got to get out here and quit worrying so much about politics. I
think they should help ranchers make money. They're part of the
extension service, they're part of the land-grant university. Their
job is to help people on their land."
Longtime New Mexico resident Tony Davis now
writes from Salem, Ore. Lisa Jones contributed to this