Zookeeper helps a battered range

  • Michael Seidman: On the job at the Phoenix Zoo

    Terry Ford

No one did backflips when a federal judge ruled in January that the Forest Service's environmental analysis of a grazing allotment on Arizona's Tonto National Forest was inadequate. After all, it was a procedural victory and might not protect even one blade of grass.

But for Michael Seidman, the decision was a hard-earned victory. It vindicated his belief that the Forest Service's top priority for public lands should not be cattle grazing.

Seidman, a Phoenix zookeeper, had worked evenings and weekends for nearly five years to watch-dog the Pole Hollow allotment. A former philosophy major with a passion for plants and animals, he had no background in public-lands issues and had to teach himself the ropes as he went along.

"It's a long, slow process," says Seidman. "That's why you don't get many grazing activists who get that deeply involved."

Seidman, 51, was familiar with the chaparral-covered landscape of Pole Hollow well before he learned about the Forest Service's management practices there. He had hiked through the 30,000-acre allotment tucked in the Mazatzal Mountains of central Arizona, becoming familiar with its piûons, junipers and Arizona cypress trees. But it wasn't until it became a potential site for restoring Mexican wolves that his interest became political.

Seidman worked with Mexican wolves at the zoo, and was eager to help the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service re-establish a wild population. Federal officials eventually eliminated Pole Hollow as a home for the wolves, but by then Seidman had become as rooted in the allotment as the cypress trees that he loves. He kept tracking the agency's management plans for the area.

Then he discovered a 1987 range analysis revealing that 96.9 percent of the allotment was in "poor" or "very poor" condition. The Forest Service responded by reducing the number of cattle in the allotment by 39 percent to 150 cows, but Seidman believed this wouldn't help. To maintain this number the agency had to concentrate cows in a unique thicket of Arizona cypress trees, an area biologists said should be off-limits to cattle.

Working solo, Seidman began to argue in writing with the Forest Service's management plans for the allotment. At first, he says, the agency assumed he was a troublemaker - some kind of radical environmentalist - and failed to send him pertinent documents.

"You can't just be emotional," he says. "You can't just say, 'I hate cows.' "

Seidman appealed the agency's first environmental assessment of the allotment in 1992. His appeal was rejected. He appealed a second assessment in 1993, this time taking it all the way to the regional forester. The agency turned him down again.

Finally, Seidman obtained some pro bono assistance from the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies and some advice from Arizona State's Joe Feller, a law professor and grazing activist. With their help, he filed a lawsuit against the Tonto National Forest.

In his ruling on the case, Federal District Court Judge Roger Strand said that the agency cannot choose a management plan from a set of alternatives that all call for grazing a maximum number of cattle. It must consider the benefits of grazing fewer cattle, he said, in order to protect wildlife habitat and to preserve the beauty of a popular hiking area.

Seidman knows the decision doesn't mean he's won the war. Judge Strand gave the Forest Service six months to develop alternative management plans for the allotment. Since the Forest Service is not required to choose any of the plans, Seidman worries it may just give lip-service to values other than cows.

Still, the ruling gives new spark to Seidman's fight, and his lawyers say the Pole Hollow ruling could reverberate throughout the West.

"In the past, progress consisted of moving from bad cattle management to good cattle management," says Feller. "Judge Strand's order requires the next step - a move to multiple-use management."

Feller was involved in a similar case two years ago, when an administrative judge evicted cows from the Comb Wash allotment in southern Utah because the BLM had ignored the environmental impacts of grazing on the area (HCN, 1/24/94). That case involved more acres and more issues, but Feller says the Pole Hollow case sets a more important precedent because it was decided in a federal court.

"There's a lesson beyond the legal lesson here," he adds. "Agencies should not try to blow off people like Michael Seidman."

For more information contact the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies at 303/444-1188, or the Payson Ranger District of Tonto National Forest at 520/474-7900.

Jenny Emery is a former HCN intern.

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