Consensus may not be the best way to reform grazing

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Editor's note: The following letter was sent to Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt by Dan Heinz, a 25-year veteran of the U.S. Forest Service. Heinz is now an environmental consultant and field agent for the non-profit American Wildlands, 16575 Callahan Ranch, Reno, NV 89511 (702/884-1998).

Dear Secretary Babbitt,

Your willingness to listen to the grass roots is setting a new standard for good government. But I have never seen nor heard of a public-lands consensus decision process producing the best possible decision for the land, or the long-term public interest, when any party at the table has a financial interest in the outcome.

The reasons vary:

* When adversaries are forced to sit down together for a long series of meetings, they soon find a lot to like and respect about each other. The environmentalists or other public-interest representatives soon become very reluctant to push decisions such as significant reductions in livestock.

* Citizen representatives rarely have the training or temperament to face the heat generated when they stick by an unpopular stand which has angered the ranchers and the ranchers' supporters.

* Range betterment funds for both the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have been abundant for the last 15 years or so. Committees find spending public funds a much more pleasant activity than facing up to livestock reductions.

* Consensus decision-making often drags on for months or years, and that is hard on unpaid citizen volunteers. The commodity-interest representatives are there as a part of their business and too often simply outlast the citizen. The profit motive tends to be a stronger motivator over the long term than the more idealistic or altruistic motives of a citizen activist.

* Citizens rarely have the expertise to deal with grazing issues. Simply put, the public is easily bamboozled on grazing issues.

* A cardinal rule of consensus decision-making - Society of Range Management Coordinated Resource Management Program (CRMP) handbook - is that everyone must agree. This in effect gives individuals veto power. Of course, the person with a financial interest in the status quo is the most likely to take advantage of opportunities to stall. For example, two different participating land managers have told me that the ranchers on the Washoe-Modoc Experimental Stewardship Program committee in Nevada have refused to allow consideration of any reduction in grazing season or in grazing numbers.

There is a fundamental ethical flaw in consensus decision-making. The concept that persons with a direct financial interest in a decision must be excluded from the decision process is basic to our system of ethics. This ethic seems to have been forgotten in the formalized consensus decision programs such as CRMP. In effect, the land manager abdicates his/her decision responsibility to the CRMP committee.

An all-too-typical example of consensus committee performance is the Austin Allotment CRMP in Nevada. The BLM, Battle Mountain District, formed a CRMP committee for the 250,000-acre Austin allotment in 1987. The allotment was generally acknowledged to be badly overgrazed. The committee met many times for the next six years and spent in excess of $500,000 on range reseeding and other range improvements. The BLM completed an allotment evaluation this year and it showed conclusively the allotment was still being severely overgrazed. It disbanded the CRMP committee and is now getting on with major reductions in stocking.

What does work?

Some believe consensus groups could deal with grazing issues if the responsible federal line officer would set up two requirements:

* The officer must set minimum standards and guidelines, adequate to protect or restore land health, which cannot be exceeded even if the committee so recommends.

* The officer must set a maximum time allowance for discussion. The officer will then issue a decision whether or not there is consensus.

The Toiyabe National Forest, headquartered here in Reno, is making major progress on range restoration. It is the leading edge of range reform. The Toiyabe does not rely on committees to make their decisions or to shield it from controversy.

The Toiyabe has reduced stocking by about 25,000 animal unit months (AUMs) over the last six years. More importantly, range condition trends have turned around on about one-third of its land. Forest officials spend very little on range improvements. They do not use any type of consensus decision process. They have 100 percent support from the public and they enjoy strong support from the delegation. They have used field trips as their primary tool to inform the public of the situation on the range. The Toiyabe does not seek consensus.

Many of us in the Nevada environmental community believe strongly in communicating with the ranching community. Some of us prefer to do this one-on-one, but opportunities are limited. So, we strongly endorse forum-type meetings where a group of ranchers and a group of environmentalists get together and exchange ideas. This "discussion group" may produce ideas both sides can support and those will be forwarded to the appropriate agency for consideration. We do not attempt consensus land allocation or land management decisions.

All of the pressures the citizen must resist bear even stronger on the lonely agency line officer located out there in the small communities. The reality is that any reforms implemented under this administration will erode under incessant pressure from commodity interests unless the citizen is empowered to counter that pressure.

Citizens are without power to force good land stewardship. We do have a few tools to slow bad proposals but we cannot force positive action when the agency resists. There is nothing we can do when we find badly overgrazed land except to try and politically embarrass the agency into action.

To change this, I recommend that citizens be empowered at the grass-roots level to enforce agency-established standards and guidelines. This is nothing but basic check-and-balance, which is essential to democracy. Citizen oversight is our best hope for lasting reform.

Dan Heinz
Reno, Nevada

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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