Killer Dust Storms in the Arizona Desert

dust storm arizona
Dust storm, Phoenix, AZ (Jeff Burgess)

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.

Update

On December 5, 2017, the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) announced it was beginning a multimillion dollar project to install a blowing dust alert system along Interstate 10 near Picacho Peak. The land on both sides of that stretch of the freeway are owned by the Arizona State Land Department, which leases the land out for livestock grazing. But ADOT doesn’t plan to buy out the leases in order to retire them.

Open Range Laws Are Obsolete

bullshit
Bullshit (Jeff Burgess)

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.

 

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