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Know the West

Southwest cows have friends in high places


The Forest Service is once again pinned down in a shootout over grazing in the Southwest. If the agency moves one way, it dodges lawsuits from environmental groups that say cows imperil endangered fish and birds. If it steps the other way, it faces fire from the livestock industry and its powerful allies in Congress.

The latest chapter followed a stormy hearing by the House Resources Committee on how the Endangered Species Act is implemented in the Southwest, home to more lawsuits over endangered species than any other region.

On July 28, Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young, who chairs the committee, asked agency officials to do a background check on staffers to see if they have ties to environmental groups. And in a letter to Southwest Regional Forester Eleanor Towns, Young asked for a list of staffers who have donated money to or joined the Santa Fe-based Forest Guardians or the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson, Ariz., outfit (HCN, 3/30/98).

Critics called it a witch hunt. "Don Young is the Joe McCarthy of the '90s," said Sam Hitt of Forest Guardians. "He's fomenting a green scare that is intimidating public officials and preventing them from doing their job."

Steve Hansen, communications director for Young's committee, explained that his boss was trying to determine whether Forest Service employees are leaking information to environmental groups.

"When you have accusations that federal employees are leaking information to organizations that are suing the federal government, then it's very relevant in finding who's doing this and being able to put a stop to it," Hansen said.

But Regional Forester Towns doubted she could meet Young's request for names. Forest Service attorneys were deliberating over the request, but, said Towns, "My gut tells me that somehow I'd be crossing the line with (a) potential for (violating) freedom of speech (and) privacy act kinds of considerations."

Why the heat?

The congressional pressure is a result of an April agreement between the Forest Service and the environmentalists. Environmentalists withdrew a preliminary motion against the agency when the Forest Service agreed to give ranchers until Aug. 15 to pull cows off of 300 miles of riverside areas in the Apache-Sitgreaves and Prescott national forests in Arizona and the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. This was to protect the Southwestern willow flycatcher, an endangered songbird, and three threatened fish species: the loach minnow, spikedace and little Colorado spinedace.

Environmentalists celebrated. "This is the beginning of the end," said John Horning of Forest Guardians. "The agreement pulled the heart out of those allotments. You can't really graze in that country without access to those rivers."

The livestock industry tried to appeal the agreement, saying the Forest Service had cut a backroom deal with environmental groups that would put ranchers out of business. When the appeal failed, ranchers went to Don Young for help. And on Aug. 14, the New Mexico Cattlegrowers Association filed suit against the Forest Service in a federal court to have the settlement thrown out.

Idaho Republican Rep. Helen Chenoweth, head of the House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, even held a hearing in Espaûola, N.M., on Aug. 15 to hear testimony about the impact of grazing and logging restrictions on northern New Mexico. One hundred and fifty ranchers and loggers showed up.

"I think it's a bunch of shit. (The Forest Service and environmentalists) are sleeping in the same damn bed," said rancher Ray Fowler. The Forest Service had ordered Fowler to move 790 of his cows away from the East Fork of the Gila River on the Gila National Forest this summer. Now, he's selling off some of his herd. "It's putting me out of business," said Fowler, whose family has run cattle in the region since 1947.

Nothing to see here

Caught in the middle of this barrage of hearings, lawsuits and accusations, the Forest Service is trying to keep its head low.

"To my knowledge, no cattle came off national forests as a result of that settlement (with environmental groups)," says Dave Stewart, head of range management for the agency's Southwest region in Albuquerque. "Forest Guardians and the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity want people to believe some massive change is occurring out there. But it's no different than what we've been doing for the last four years."

Stewart acknowledges that lawsuits from environmental groups jump-started grazing reform in the mid 1990s, and that cows have moved away from streams this summer. But the agency has known for years that it is not in compliance with its own environmental standards, he says, and it is in the slow process of correcting that. "This is in response to just good resource stewardship," he says. "It's not happening because of the Endangered Species Act."

This September, the Forest Service plans to release a study of the impacts of grazing on endangered species on 700 grazing allotments in the Southwest. Stewart says the study shouldn't change things much.

John Horning calls the study a farce. "I see the pendulum shifting" away from cattle and toward environmental protection, he says. "But that's because of our litigation, not because the Forest Service has seen the light of day."

Keith Easthouse reports for the Santa Fe New Mexican. Greg Hanscom is an HCN assistant editor.

You can call ...

* The New Mexico Cattlegrowers Association at 505/247-0584;

* John Horning with Forest Guardians at 505/988-9126;

* Dave Stewart with the U.S. Forest Service at 505/842-3224.