On Tuesday, October 29th, 2013, a large dust storm along Interstate 10 near Picacho Peak in Pinal County caused a 19-vehicle pileup that killed 3 people, and injured 12 more. Arizona residents driving between Phoenix and Tucson on this freeway have seen the barren Sonoran desert in this area, and know this is the kind of a spot where a killer dust storm could occur.
Most people probably think these are natural phenomena. But that’s not true. At the Arizona Chapter of the Wildlife Society’s “Wildlife First” symposium to promote public involvement in rangeland issues, held at ASU’s Polytechnic campy in Mesa on October 19th, ASU wildlife biologist David E. Brown explained that central Pinal County was historically covered with annual grasslands. He said these unique desert grasslands were fragile ecosystems that were virtually wiped out by the advent of cattle grazing. The early ranchers, he said, grazed the desert grass until it disappeared. With no protection from wind erosion, the top soil was damaged, and the land passed over an ecological threshold from which it might be impossible to recover, at least in human time frames. The results are the barren ground that now spawns the killer dust storms.
This is another example of the ecological holocaust cattle grazing has inflicted upon on the arid lands of Arizona, and the wildlife and people of Arizona too. These types of things should be included in our discussions about the state’s ranching heritage.
Last week some cows wandered onto Interstate 17 in the desert north of Phoenix, Arizona, causing a serious accident which resulted in the death of a woman.
According to Arizona’s open range laws, and the laws of many other Western states, drivers are always to blame for hitting cattle on public roads and are liable for reimbursing ranchers for dead or injured animals. Furthermore, ranchers aren’t required to fence their cattle in, but everybody else is responsible for fencing them out.
The only exception, under Arizona law, is when a community succeeds in getting the local county board of supervisors to establish a “no-fence district” as per Arizona Revised Statutes (A.R.S.) Title 3, Chapter 11, Article 8. They are called no-fence districts because their residents aren’t required to erect fences to keep trespassing livestock off their private property. But even this law can only be implemented where there’s irrigated agricultural land or a community of at least 30,000 people.
Furthermore, if Arizona residents don’t live in a no-fence district and want to fence out unwanted livestock, the fences they build must be very sturdy and expensive in order to meet the definition of a “lawful fence.”
In regards to the protection of public lands from ecological damage caused by trespassing livestock, the Federal courts have repeatedly rendered decisions (Shannon v. United States, l60 Fed. 870 (Cir. 9 1908); Light v. United States, 220 U.S., 523; United States v. Gurley, 279 Fed. 874 (N.D. GA. 1922); United States v. Johnston, 38 F. Supp. 4 (S.D.W.VA. 1941)) holding that the United States is not required to fence public lands lands to protect them against unauthorized livestock use. In other words, it’s legal for federal agencies to subsidize the construction of fences on public grazing allotments to facilitate cattle grazing, but the Bureau or Land Management (BLM) and the Forest Service aren’t required to erect fences to protect the land from trespassing livestock.
The persistence of these obsolete open range laws is is a good example of the disproportionate political clout of Western cattle ranchers.
I’ve had to drive the Phoenix freeways to and from work for many years and one of the things I’ve learned is that commercial semi-trucks are a major source of traffic congestion during rush hours – probably accounting for up to a third of the problem. They obviously take up a lot of space, but the biggest problem they cause is they disrupt the efficient flow of traffic because of their inability to accelerate and decelerate as quickly as cars.
I suggest that we should do something about it and the most effective solution would be to ban semi trucks from Arizona’s urban freeways from 7-9AM, and again from 4-6PM, every Monday through Friday. This isn’t a new idea. Los Angeles proposed to limit big rig trucks on its freeways in 1988. The idea gained favor when a temporary trucking ban on the city’s freeways during the 1984 Summer Olympics led to a 60% reduction in traffic congestion. But L.A.’s plan to make the big rig ban permanent was stymied by a federal law that requires a comparable alternate route for any stretch of federally funded freeway that’s made off limits to trucks. This means that trucks couldn’t be banned in Phoenix until the controversial South Mountain Freeway gets built, as this new outer loop would provide truckers with an alternative to the stretch of Interstate 10 that runs through the middle of town.
One solution to this roadblock would be to get the federal law changed. But that would require a gridlocked Congress to agree on something. In the meantime, there are still some things local governments can do. In California, for example, semi trucks must drive in the slower, right-hand lanes. If the highway has three lanes or less, excluding a carpool lane, they can use only use the far right lane. If there are four lanes or more, they can use the two lanes farthest to the right. Adoption of these rules in Arizona would also solve the problem of semi trucks using carpool lanes. (Arizona law ARS 28-737, which governs the use of carpool lanes during rush hours, allows semis to use them as long as there at least two passengers.)
Another solution would be to make it more expensive for truckers to be on Arizona’s urban freeways during rush hours. They could be required to buy expensive decals and stick them on their trucks if they want to drive through town without getting a ticket during these busy hours. This would make them bear more of the cost of the traffic congestion they are causing, and the proceeds could be dedicated to improving public transportation.
I realize the stranglehold the far-right has on the Arizona legislature means any of these changes would face some stiff political opposition. There’d probably be the usual conservative think tank sponsored crapola about government overreach, and the trucking industry lobbyists would warn everybody the new rules would cause an economic catastrophe. But the traffic law changes I’ve proposed would create enormous savings in time and gasoline for many thousands of people, and also reduce air pollution – more than offsetting any increases in commercial transportation costs that might result.