What Did The Tonto National Forest Do With The Money?

Roosevelt Lake, Arizona
Roosevelt Lake, Arizona (Jeff Burgess)

In 1996 the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) completed a $430 million construction project to increase the height of Theodore Roosevelt Dam  by 77 feet to increase water storage in Theodore Roosevelt Lake and decrease the danger of catastrophic downstream flooding in the Phoenix metro area. The modifications to the dam, which is operated by the Salt River Project (SRP), were part of the larger Plan 6 alternative for the Regulatory Storage Division of the Central Arizona Project (CAP).

The approval of Plan 6 required the inclusion of a variety of environmental mitigation measures, including compensation for about 460 acres of Sonoran Desert riparian habitat and about 8,290 acres of upland desert habitat that would be flooded by the higher water levels at Roosevelt Lake.

The BOR’s 1990 Theodore Roosevelt Dam Modifications Environmental Assessment described how the BOR gave the Tonto National Forest, which manages most of the land surrounding Roosevelt Lake, money to create the Tonto Creek Riparian Unit. The Tonto used it to fence cattle out of lower Tonto Creek in the Tonto Basin, thereby resulting in a dramatic improvement in the condition of the stream’s desert riparian habitat.

The BOR also made about $650,000 available to the Tonto to accelerate the implementation of improved livestock grazing allotment management plans on 11 allotments around Roosevelt Lake. The stated purpose of the money was to “control access to the lake by livestock and reduce impacts to native vegetation associated with uncontrolled grazing.” The environmental impact statement (EIS) for the 1985 Tonto National Forest Plan had listed the condition of the Roosevelt Lake watershed as “unsatisfactory”. This was defined as “the vegetation protecting the soil surface has been removed to the point that accelerated erosion is occurring.” The grazing allotments identified as needing new management plans were the the 7/K, Roosevelt, Schoolhouse, Bar V Bar, Poison Springs, Sierra Ancha, A-Cross, Armer Mountain, Dutchwoman, Tonto Basin, and Del Shay allotments.

The Tonto began working on new management plans for these allotments in 1991. The plans, however, had skewed objectives. The 1992 environmental assessment (EA) of a new plan for the Roosevelt allotment, for example, failed to mention that its primary purpose was supposed to be mitigation for the loss of wildlife habitat. Instead, it said that “range improvements need to be relocated and the grazing system needs to be adjusted to offset the land lost to the higher lake level.”

In the spring of 1996 the forest’s Tonto Basin Ranger District initiated the Eastern Roosevelt Lake Watershed Analysis Area project. They prepared a draft EIS to analyze livestock management alternatives for five grazing allotments, including the Armer Mountain, A Cross, Dagger, Poison Springs and Sierra Ancha allotments. All of them, except the Dagger allotment, were among the 11 allotments for which the forest had received money from the BOR in order to implement new management plans.

But when the district ranger announced the final version of the project’s EIS in August of 1997, it was accompanied by decision notices for just three of the five allotments. Decisions for the Poison Springs and Sierra Ancha allotments were deferred. (The Poison Springs and Sierra Ancha allotments had the same grazing permittee and were managed together.)  The district ranger explained in her decision notice that a new management alternative had been identified for these two allotments, so the public would be given more time to submit further comments. Subsequently, in the spring of 1998 she issued a decision memo for the Poison Springs allotment. The memo called for rebuilding 1.5 miles of existing fence and and constructing 1.5 miles of new fence to prevent cattle from accessing the Salt River. This was a good thing, but that much fence work couldn’t have cost more than a few thousand dollars, and it fell far short of implementing a new allotment management plan. In fact, her memo explained that the decision notice for the implementation of a management plan for the Poison Springs/Sierra Ancha allotments was expected later that year. But it never happened.

The Tonto National Forest proposed new livestock management plans for the Poison Springs and Sierra Ancha allotments again in the summer of 2011 when it announced the initiation of the Salt River Allotments Vegetative Management project. Despite its name, this project was a grazing authorization project. Livestock grazing in all of the Tonto’s pastures along the Salt River in the Salt River Canyon Wilderness above Roosevelt Lake had been suspended several years earlier as part of a legal settlement to protect desert riparian habitat used by endangered species. The affected grazing permittees had been pressuring the forest to conduct NEPA analyses on their grazing allotments in order to get authorization to resume grazing along the river. In addition to the Poison Springs and Sierra Ancha allotments, the project included the Chrysotile, Haystack Butte, Dagger, Sedow, and Hicks-Pikes Peak allotments.

The Tonto released the project’s draft EIS in early 2013 and the preferred alternative proposed to allow livestock grazing to resume in the river pastures during the cool season, from November 15th to February 15th. This important change was presented in the draft EIS in a deceptive manner. The existing prohibition of grazing along the river described in the “current management” alternative was simply deleted from their preferred alternative, with no mention of its removal. There was just a short reference to an Appendix C added to the end of draft EIS wherein the details of this important difference were spelled out.

The draft EIS also explained that the Sierra Ancha allotment had been divided in 2009 between the adjacent Poison Springs and Dagger allotments. Its lower elevation pastures were incorporated into the Poison Springs allotment, and the upper pastures into the Dagger allotment. This meant the Dagger allotment had replaced the Sierra Ancha allotment on the list of 11 allotments for which the Tonto had received money from the BOR.

The descriptions in the draft EIS of the existing management situations on these allotments revealed that 5 of the Dagger allotment’s 11 pastures weren’t being grazed because they lacked water or had unprotected riparian areas. And 7 out of 17 pastures on the Poison Springs allotment, including its Klondike pasture, weren’t being grazed because they were in poor shape. The Tonto had ordered the removal of cattle from both of these allotments in 2000 due to a severe drought, and large portions of both allotments are Sonoran Desert, inherently unsuited for grazing.

The Tonto never issued a final EIS or any associated decision notices for the Salt River Allotments Vegetative Management project because in February of 2015 they announced they were abandoning it. Their retraction explained, “through discussions with term-grazing permittees, it was determined that if livestock were allowed to graze along river that neither Forest Service nor term-grazing permittees had time or money to conduct monitoring necessary to determine appropriateness of this proposed action along river corridor.”

The forest also said in their announcement that they would continue the implementation of new livestock management plans on these allotments, and comply with NEPA requirements by issuing individual  environmental assessments for each allotment, instead of using the more complicated EIS process for all of them.

The Tonto broke this promise in the spring of 2016, however, by implementing new “trial” management plans for the Sedow and Haystack Butte allotments without issuing public notices. The authorization letters increased permitted cattle numbers on the Sedow allotment by about 37% and on the Haystack Butte by about 49%. The trial periods were also arbitrarily extended beyond the normal 1 or 2 years to 5 years because of “varied southwest climatic conditions.” This was done during an ongoing long-term drought.

They broke their promise again in August of 2017 when the forest’s Tonto Basin Ranger District sent out a letter announcing their Klondike Water System Project for the Poison Springs allotment. It explained that they were going to install a water pump on a well located on an adjacent allotment that would send water through a new pipeline to a new 10,000 gallon storage tank on the Poison Springs allotment, where it would feed three new watering troughs, including two in the Klondike pasture. The total length of the water pipelines necessary to complete the project would exceed 3 miles.

The Tonto’s letter also explained that they were not going to complete an EA for this project. Instead, they were going to use a NEPA categorical exclusion to get the new livestock waters approved. The Forest Service’s categorical exclusion rules in the Forest Service Handbook, FSH 1909.15,32.2(9), state that categorical exclusions can be used for:

Implementation or modification of minor management practices to improve allotment condition or animal distribution when an allotment management plan is not yet in place.  Examples include but are not limited to:

(i) Rebuilding a fence to improve animal distribution;

(ii) Adding a stock watering facility to an existing water line; and

(iii) Spot seeding native species of grass or applying lime to maintain forage condition.

Obviously, the construction of a large new storage tank, miles of new water pipeline, and three new watering troughs doesn’t comply with the spirit of these rules. But a big difference between a decision resulting from an EIS or an EA, and one from a NEPA categorical exclusion, is that decisions resulting from categorical exclusions cannot be appealed by the public. Another difference is that the description of the agency’s proposal doesn’t have to include as much information. For this project, that meant the public had no idea who was going to pay the several hundred thousand dollars needed to finance it. According to the range analysis that was completed for the 2013 draft EIS, the Poison Springs allotment is only permitted for 102 head of cattle yearlong. If the cost of the new livestock watering system is $200,000, and that’s a conservative estimate, it works out to an investment of almost $2,000 a head. It’s a good bet that the U.S. taxpayers are picking up the tab in the form of an Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) grant.

The Tonto Basin District Ranger justified the construction of this expensive new livestock watering system by explaining that they had permitted grazing to resume on the allotment, and there weren’t any reliable watering sites in the Klondike pasture, so new ones were needed, “to deter livestock from concentrating at a few water sources.” But this pasture is comprised of Sonoran Desert and has a history of poor resource conditions due to overgrazing. An easy argument could be made that livestock shouldn’t have been allowed to resume grazing it in the first place. Furthermore, recent research published in Rangelands, a periodical of the Society for Range Management (SRM), titled Upland Water and Deferred Rotation Effects on Cattle Use in Riparian and Upland Areas  found that building upland livestock watering sites doesn’t improve natural resource conditions, it just facilitates more grazing on the uplands. In other words, the only thing this new livestock watering system will likely accomplish is to allow more cattle to graze on the Poison Springs allotment.

These livestock management issues could have been publicly analyzed if an EA had been completed for the Poison Springs allotment. According to the 2013 range analysis, the Tonto drafted a livestock management plan for the allotment in 1987 in response to chronically poor range conditions. But it wasn’t successfully implemented due to permittee noncompliance, and then the cattle were removed in 2000 due to the drought. As far as I know, a comprehensive NEPA process resulting in the successful implementation of an adequate livestock management plan has never been completed for this allotment. In other words, the Tonto used a NEPA categorical exclusion to implement a controversial decision on an allotment that’s never had a real management plan.

The 2013 range analysis also revealed that no NEPA analysis of any sort has ever been completed for the Dagger allotment. It explains that the allotment’s grazing permit was revoked for permittee noncompliance in the 1990s, and the allotment wasn’t grazed from 2000 until 2009. Then in 2009 grazing was resumed by a new permittee. But instead of finally conducting a NEPA analysis, the Tonto has relied on monitoring by the Reading the Range program of the University of Arizona’s Cooperative Extension Service. This program has certainly helped to improve range conditions on the Tonto, but it’s reports aren’t subject to public review unless they are  included in NEPA analyses. Furthermore, it focuses on monitoring the condition of livestock forage on the uplands, and not the more important issue of protecting desert riparian areas from cattle, as shown by its inability to provide the monitoring needed to permit grazing to resume along the Salt River.

The bottom line is that new allotment management plans with the primary objective of improving wildlife habitat weren’t implemented on all of the 11 allotments for which the Tonto National Forest received the money from the BOR.  In 2001 I was concerned about the Tonto’s lack of progress and sent a letter to the Phoenix office of the BOR asking them for a report on the results of the $650,000 they’d given the forest. But I never received any information, despite the fact that their Plan 6 promised that, “Reclamation will monitor the effects of the project and the success of all the mitigation efforts.”

Zinke’s Outcome-Based Grazing Initiative Raises Questions

Ryan Zinke
Ryan Zinke (Wikipedia)

President Donald Trump’s pick to manage the U.S. Department of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, is promoting a new “outcome-based” livestock management initiative on the public lands managed by the department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The agency has solicited its grazing permittees to submit their ranching operations for nomination to be among the 6 to 12 projects nationwide that will be part of this “demonstration program.” The stated purpose of the initiative is, “to show that livestock grazing on the public lands can operate under a more flexible framework than is commonly used in order to better reach agreed upon habitat or vegetation goals.” It might sound good, but, as always, the devil is in the details.

The BLM’s announcement of the initiative raised an immediate red flag because it included a statement from Zinke wherein he claimed that, “Farmers and ranchers know the wildlife and the land they work better than anyone.” Really? They know it better than the department’s professional wildlife biologists? And if ranchers know so much, then how come livestock grazing has done more damage to wildlife habitat on public lands than all other commodity uses combined? (Grazing is far more ubiquitous on public lands than mining, drilling, and tree cutting.)

The obvious message behind Zinke’s initiative is that the BLM’s current management of public lands grazing is unfair to ranchers. How? They don’t specifically say, other than to imply that it’s too rigid. The BLM explained that, “Grazing authorizations typically emphasize process and prescription. The new authorizations will instead emphasize ecological outcomes, allowing livestock operators more flexibility to make adjustments in response to changing conditions such as drought or wildland fire.” So it seems they believe that a proven prescription to achieve a desired ecological outcome is bad because it’s too strict, while more flexibility will magically provide an alternative to removing livestock from public land that has burned or is experiencing drought.

The BLM’s announcement also said that Zinke’s initiative will give local “stakeholders” a say in these demonstration projects, but it didn’t explain what that meant. Under existing federal law, the agency is required to employ the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) public planning process when it implements a new livestock management plan for a grazing allotment. The NEPA process is important because it provides the general public with their only significant opportunity to provide input into livestock management on public lands. Zinke’s initiative is a demonstration project, so it’s unclear if NEPA applies, but it seems they are trying to invent a new public participation process, when a good one already exists.

I called the BLM’s national office on November 6 to ask them if the general public will have any opportunities to participate in the formulation of these new “flexible” grazing management plans. I was told that they don’t know, and that I should call my state BLM office to ask that question. So then I called the Arizona BLM office. They told me they don’t know either because they haven’t received any direction yet from the national office.

Perhaps my inability to get an answer about Zinke’s grazing initiative is simply because it’s a new program and the BLM hasn’t sorted out the details. But it’s a proposal from the Trump administration, and Donald Trump has already proven to be the most anti-environment president in modern history, and a threat to the perpetuation of the multiple use doctrine on our public lands. So I have good reason to fear that the general public’s opportunity to participate in this demonstration program will be restricted. It’s important that it’s not, because the BLM manages more than 21,000 public lands grazing allotments on millions of acres across the West and they plan to expand the use of this new process if they deem it to be “successful.”

Updates

On March 28, 2018, the BLM announced  announced 11 demonstration projects in six states for the Trump administration’s outcome-based grazing authorizations initiative.

Why is Livestock Grazing Permitted on Desert Public Lands?

sonoran desert national monument, arizona
Sonoran Desert National Monument, AZ (Jeff Burgess)

Did you know the federal agencies charged with managing our public lands permit livestock grazing in desert ecosystems?

In Arizona, for instance, where the predominant ecosystem is desert, more than 87% percent of the 14.2 million acres managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are permitted for livestock grazing, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service permits grazing on more than 67% of the 11.2 million acres they manage in the state’s national forests. (Arizona’s Tonto, Prescott and Coronado National Forests include millions of acres of hot Sonoran Desert.)

Almost all of these public lands ranching operations graze cattle, which require significant amounts of vegetation and surface water to survive. Since deserts receive less than 10 inches of rain per year, it’s obvious that permitting livestock grazing in the desert is a dumb idea. In 1991 the U.S. Congress’s Government Accountability Office (GAO) agreed when it issued a report (RCED-92-12) that analyzed the BLM’s permitting of livestock grazing in the desert. The GAO concluded that, “the lands we visited provided enough evidence of the high environmental risk and low economic benefit associated with livestock grazing in America’s hot deserts for us to conclude that the program as currently conducted merits reconsideration.”

Permitting cattle to graze in the desert can cause a lot of damage. If the animals have access to riparian areas, they will destroy them by turning them into turd-filled mud holes. They can also denude the landscape, and will even eat brush and low-hanging tree branches to try and avoid starvation. This can be especially bad if the rancher is allowed to implement a junk-science-based holistic resource management (HRM) grazing system.  Desert grazing can also permanently damage fragile topsoil, leading to killer dust storms. In Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, cattle facilitate the spread of exotic grass species like buffelgrass (Pennisetum ciliare) and red brome (Bromus rubens) which create damaging wildfires in an ecosystem that’s not adapted to fire, thus threatening the survival of native desert plant species, including the iconic saguaro cactus.

As you may suspect, the multiple use doctrine under which our public lands are managed requires these federal agencies to determine the suitability of various land uses, including grazing, and only allow those uses that are in the interests of the general public. But because of political pressure from ranchers, these regulations have been traditionally ignored when it comes to livestock grazing.

A good example is the story of cattle grazing on the Arizona BLM’s Sonoran Desert National Monument. In 2001 President Bill Clinton issued a proclamation  under the Antiquities Act to to create the monument on about 487,000 acres of existing BLM land. It specified that existing grazing permits on land within the monument south of Interstate 8 would not be renewed when they expired. As for the monument land north of the freeway, it said that grazing “shall be allowed to continue only to the extent that the Bureau of Land Management determines that grazing is compatible with the paramount purpose of protecting the objects identified in this proclamation.”

The BLM initially gathered a lot of scientific research that justified ending grazing on the northern portion of the monument. But then the agency, which was under the direction of George W. Bush’s notorious Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, disregarded it. The Western Watersheds Project had to file a federal lawsuit against the agency in 2008 just to get them to agree to complete the  resource management plan (RMP) wherein the appropriateness of permitting grazing on the northern portion of the monument would be determined. In 2010 the BLM settled the case by agreeing to complete the RMP no later than the end of 2011. But when the final RMP was issued in 2012, it still permitted grazing on the desert land north of the freeway. Western Watersheds Project, along with the Grand Canyon (Arizona) Chapter of the Sierra Club, responded by filing another lawsuit against the BLM in 2013. In early 2015 the court found that the BLM’s RMP was “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law.” This meant the BLM had to start over with their plan, but grazing would continue in the meantime.

Another example of the problem is the Tonto National Forest’s continued permitting of cattle on the forest’s numerous grazing allotments and pastures comprised of Sonoran Desert.  Conservationists have tried for years, without success, to get local Forest Service land managers to declare these areas to be unsuited for grazing. But while grazing has been eliminated on some of the Tonto’s desert areas, the forest has never categorically declared the desert to be unsuitable for livestock. The forest is currently in the process of revising its management plan, and has promised to address this grazing suitability issue. But it remains to be seen if they’ll keep that promise.

It’s unlikely that the BLM or Forest Service will ever issue regulations declaring desert public lands unsuited for livestock grazing unless conservation groups continue to apply legal pressure. And a Republican-led Congress won’t be any help. But a partial solution may be to pay public lands ranchers to voluntarily relinquish their grazing permits and then persuade the agencies to permanently retire the associated grazing allotments. This common sense approach has already been applied with great success by local conservation groups across the West to protect unique areas from livestock grazing. There are undoubtedly many public lands ranchers with permits for desert grazing allotments that would accept a buyout offer, because ranching in the desert isn’t very profitable.

Update

On November 6, 2017, the Tonto National Forest released its Preliminary Proposed Plan for public comment. It includes a grazing management proposal on page 89 which states:

Allotments comprised of large percentages of Desert Ecological Response Units (Sonora-Mojave 25 Mixed Salt Desert Scrub, Sonoran Paloverde-Mixed Cactus Desert Scrub, and Sonoran Mid-26 Elevation Desert Scrub) should be closed, in whole or in part, as they become vacant.

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