EQIP Grants to Public Lands Ranchers a Waste of Tax Dollars

bullshit
Bullshit (Jeff Burgess)

Every time the Farm Bill comes up for renewal in Congress the budget hawks searching for wasteful government spending should take a close look at the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funds being awarded to public lands ranchers by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

EQIP funds provide cost-sharing assistance to agricultural producers to help them implement conservation practices. The NRCS was historically prohibited from awarding EQIP funds to public lands ranchers because the grazing fees these ranchers paid to the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) were supposed to help fund livestock management plans.

Public lands ranchers first became eligible for EQIP funds after Arizona’s Gila County Cattlegrowers complained to the George W. Bush administration that the Tonto National Forest was requiring them to drastically cut cattle numbers in response to a severe drought.  The Arizona NRCS was authorized to proceed with a $1.5 million EQIP pilot program on the Tonto in the fall of 2004. According to the NRCS, most of these funds went to 19 public lands ranchers on the Tonto that “voluntarily” reduced their herds. (Tonto land managers had already ordered them to do it.)

The Arizona NRCS claimed the purpose of the EQIP pilot program was “preserving sustainable grazing in the Tonto National Forest.” But there are hundreds of thousands of acres of hot Sonoran Desert on the Tonto, and in 1991 the General Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report (RCED-92-12) which concluded that permitting livestock grazing in hot deserts on public lands “merits reconsideration” because of the “high environmental risk and low economic benefit” associated with this activity.

Congress subsequently expanded the scope of the EQIP program in the 2008 Farm Bill and made these funds available to all public lands ranchers in the West.  The program’s cost has grown too. In Arizona, for example, EQIP funds awarded to public lands ranchers grew to $4.96 million in federal fiscal year 2008. (There are only about 900 federal lands grazing permit holders in Arizona.) Although Arizona’s public lands ranchers continue to receive EQIP funds, the latest amounts are difficult to identify because the NRCS says they no longer track them as unique EQIP recipients.

EQIP Funds Are Being Wasted on Untested Strategies

Most EQIP-funded livestock management plans issued by Arizona’s national forests during the last few years have included claims they will improve riparian habitat conditions. But rarely have these plans called for restricting livestock from streams. Instead, in nearly identical language, they say the construction of new livestock watering sites in the uplands will draw enough cattle away from the streams to allow the riparian habitat to improve. But none of these proposals have included any examples of where this strategy has worked in the desert Southwest, because no research has been done to see if it works. To put it another way, these plans are political solutions – not science-based ones.

Instead, the Forest Service promises it will use its adaptive management strategy to take more effective measures to keep cattle out of the streams if monitoring shows these plans aren’t working. It’s obvious that the real purpose of these plans is to build livestock waters that will open up new upland areas to livestock grazing, and try to increase permitted cattle numbers.

Field staff with Arizona Forest Service and BLM offices with have admitted to me that they’ve had no say in drafting these grazing plans, and that the plans have nearly identical wording because they are being drafted by the NRCS, which provides the EQIP funding. They are being implemented, however, on public lands which are supposed to be managed under the multiple use doctrine, wherein lands are utilized in the combination that will best meet the needs of the American people. The purpose of the NRCS, however, is to promote agriculture. Forest Service and BLM employees say they still have the power to veto any unacceptable provisions in these plans, because they must be approved through the NEPA public planning process before the NRCS can disburse the EQIP funds. But the ability of federal land managers to appropriately manage livestock is obviously being hobbled by the fact that another agency, with a different agenda, is controlling the purse strings.

If Congress wants to fund livestock management plans on our public lands in an honest and fair manner, they should end EQIP grants to public lands ranchers and increase the grazing fee. The 2013 grazing fee is only $1.35 per head per month. In other words, this is all that ranchers pay to graze their cattle on our public lands. It’s obviously too low to generate enough money for the Forest Service and BLM to be able to implement the livestock management plans needed to protect our public lands from overgrazing.

Update

In a 2017 edition of Rangelands, a periodical publication of the Society for Range Management (SRM), a research article was published titled Upland Water and Deferred Rotation Effects on Cattle Use in Riparian and Upland Areas  that found building upland livestock watering sites didn’t improve the condition of riparian areas but facilitated more grazing on the uplands. In other words, the millions of tax dollars spent on EQIP grants to public lands ranchers since 2004 didn’t improve riparian habitat and were a waste of money. It’s reminiscent of all the money public land managers wasted implementing holistic resource management (HRM) grazing schemes before they discovered they didn’t work.

Killer Dust Storms in the Arizona Desert

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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

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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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