Playing politics or helping the range?

  • Range Improvement Task Force coordinator John Fowler

    Michael P. Berman
  • New Mexico's most political animal

    Michael P. Berman

Note: this article in one of several feature stories in a special issue about the West's land grant universities and their extension programs.

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 says.

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.

Schickedanz 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 either side."

A perception of bias

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 (HCN, 2/5/96).

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.

"It really 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 anonymity.

A hot subject

Objectivity is hard to maintain in public-lands grazing anywhere in the West. In New Mexico, it's even harder.

"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 range.

"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 story.

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