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Know the West

On a new national monument, has an agency been cowed?


Can cows coexist with rare plant communities in a national monument? That is what President Clinton asked the Bureau of Land Management to determine when he created the 52,947-acre Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in 2000.

The monument, east of Ashland, Ore., is an ecological crossroads where three distinct bioregions - the Siskiyou Mountains, the Cascade Range and the Great Basin - intersect. The blending of the three regions produces rare plant communities, such as the Oregon white oak and juniper stands of Agate Flat and the rosaceous chapparal. At least 23 rare plants grow here, including Greene's mariposa lily.

At various times since the late 19th century, these lands have been burned, scarred, seeded with exotic grasses and heavily overgrazed; even ranchers admit cows still trample and foul streams and springs. But there's little hard science on the effects of grazing on the monument - thus the order from Clinton to take a close look.

The BLM took the presidential directive seriously; it developed a detailed study plan that involved establishing several monitoring sites and hundreds of photo points. The agency then submitted the plan for peer review and assembled a team to implement it, at a cost of $1 million, over the next three to five years.

But three years and $400,000 after the grazing-impact study began, its funding may be in jeopardy. Asked to identify potential cuts in his 2004 budget, Medford BLM manager Tim Reuwsaat zeroed out money for the study. Reuwsaat says that doesn't mean it won't go forward with other funds. "It's not an all-or-nothing study, it's more a study process," he says. "We're not eliminating the grazing study, period. It's a huge district priority." Dave Willis, chairman of the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council, is not convinced. "I'm worried the grazing study will become an unfunded mandate," he says. That would be a disaster, says Willis, who has lobbied for 20 years to protect this remote country.

"BLM management is supposed to protect the monument," Willis says. "Do exotic species like cows help to sustain natural system dynamics? I don't think so."

The very idea of the BLM study has raised the hackles of the ranchers who hold the nine grazing leases that cover the monument. They successfully appealed a plan to fence cattle out of several sites, so range scientists could compare plant growth with and without grazing. "We involved the lessees in our decision," says Howard Hunter, the monument's assistant manager. "They didn't like it very much."

Some ranchers call the grazing study a ploy to kick cows off the monument, hatched by environmental activists inside and outside the BLM. Bruce Buckmaster of Ashland, who grazes 100 beef cattle on the Soda Mountain allotment at the monument's south end, contends it's a conflict of interest for the agency even to conduct the study.

"It's the fox guarding the henhouse," he says. "The BLM is studying itself. A lot of ranchers feel someone like Oregon State University should be doing the study instead."

After an account in the Medford Mail Tribune described cows trampling fragile streams and springs on the monument, ranchers proposed that the BLM hire a livestock manager to keep their cattle under control. (That won't happen, Hunter says; ranchers who lease BLM land are responsible for controlling their own cows.)

Buckmaster says he tries to minimize the damage by distributing his cattle across grazing allotments in small herds. "We do the best we can," he says. "I can't tell you we keep them out. It's like keeping kids out of the candy store."

The BLM's draft management plan for the monument, released in 2002, addresses restoration, recreation, road closures, off-road vehicle use, fire protection, even the potential use of grazing as a management tool - everything but the option of removing cows from the monument. The bigger questions will wait for the grazing study.

Although Clinton's proclamation requiring the grazing study has the force of law, Willis says, "I have a lot of confidence that the Bush-Norton BLM will be breathing heavily down the neck of the Medford BLM. We fully expect that there will be litigation to hold the Bush administration's feet to the fire."

Thumbnail image courtesy Bureau of Land Management/CC Flickr