Consensus is not the answer

  Dear HCN,

I enjoy High Country News, but am continually dismayed by your promotion of consensus.

Wallace Stegner once characterized the American West as "stretches of picturesque poverty." It is the most salient fact about the West. And the fact most missing when visionaries talk about what the West should be.

The idea that public lands can be plowed, chainsawed, grazed and bulldozed back to health because the carrot of profit applies is just silly. Even after seven decades of public investment in BLM range and dramatically subsidized grazing fees, most BLM range requires 20 or more acres to feed a cow for a month. Most real ranchers have gone broke. Without subsidies, timber companies will go belly up on site class five timber lands - always have, always will.

When white folks came from Europe to the new world, they brought old-world ideas about how land should be managed, and they brought their cattle, plows and saws with them. When the Western migration began, cattle bred for moist, mild England came along. The idea that land can be just too cold, or steep, or dry, or erosive for industrial-strength commercial enterprise is beyond the consciousness of most folks. On a big chunk of the West - lands administered by BLM, for instance - raising crops and cattle was a square-peg-in-a-round-hole proposition from the get go. But government, industry hucksters and college professors at land-grant universities preached intensive management. With enough public investment, commercial efforts would blossom and bear fruit, they promised.

And invest the public did - in herbicides, exotic grasses, water developments, fences, roads - millions upon millions of dollars. Still, range abuse continues and there are fewer cattle on the public range than in past decades. The Trout Creek Mountains are a good example. Local ranchers live on the flats at the base of the range. Water from mountain streams was used to irrigate hay during the summer months on base (private) range land. Cattle had to be somewhere while hay was growing. They were turned loose on the mountain and followed the rapidly melting snow to the lush range and cooler benches on the uplands. Cattle spent the entire summer there and generally came down as weather pushed them to lower elevations in the fall. When it was hot, the cattle spent their time in the aspen groves at stream headwaters. Naturally, some of the range got beat to hell.

The Bureau of Land Management, responsible for administering the public range lands of the Trout Creek Mountains, did what they have done on almost every acre of land they administer. They said the range needed management. With money and manpower great things were achievable. And give them money the public did. The objective is to create ever smaller pastures so use is more concentrated for shorter periods of time, giving some pastures rest, especially during the growing season. Of course, all of those pastures have to have water. No small order in arid country. BLM and ranchers build dams on intermittent streams, dig out small seasonal ponds, tap into springs and run miles of plastic pipe to water troughs. In places, BLM even digs deep wells and operates them with propane-powered pumps.

In order to reduce summer grazing pressure in the Trout Creeks, thousands of acres of crested wheat grass were planted as spring range at lower elevations to compensate for the lack of spring range provided by the good Lord.

When wildlife biologists tell us we have to live with modest populations of native ungulates because public winter range is lacking and there are conflicts with private lands, we shrug and say we understand. When BLM range conservationists tell us land is being overgrazed and they want to solve the problem by creating supplemental forage rather than reducing the rancher's permit, we say, "Sure, how many millions of dollars do you want for herbicide and exotic grass seed?"

I am baffled by the response of the environmental community to BLM management. What would environmentalists say if the U.S. Forest Service proposed killing vegetation on blocks of land several thousand acres in size and then planting monocultures of exotic trees from Asia just so timber companies could make money? Even if they sugar-coated the message and said they were planting exotic monocultures so they could provide multiple-use benefits to other lands, or compensate timber companies for loss due to various environmental restrictions, would environmentalists praise the Forest Service and timber companies in High Country News?

It is bad enough when government asks me to subsidize the destruction of my own land by trying to put square pegs in round holes, but when some "consensus' group of special interests and amateurs who are not elected, nor appointed, nor hired to represent the public interest, is given authority to spend my money to degrade my land, well ...

For decades, environmentalists made great strides by championing effective land-use laws, regulations and policies, lobbying for funding for worthwhile programs, and going to court or the court of public opinion to leverage agencies into doing their job in a responsible manner. Now, a new generation of anarchists insists laws don't work. Courts are bad, they say. Criticism is evil. The traditional, American way of doing business is a failure. Consensus is the way of the future.

So, when was the last time J. R. Simplot or Boise Cascade asked you to sit on a consensus group to manage their private lands?

Don Tryon

Colville, Washington

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