San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area Threatened

San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area
San Pedro River near U.S. 90, August 2017 (Jeff Burgess)

Arizona’s Gila District Office of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued a draft resource management plan  on June 29, 2018, that proposes to increase permitted cattle grazing in the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (SPRNCA) by about 375%.

The SPRNCA is a special place and was the BLM’s first nature preserve, a product of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) of 1976 passed by Congress with the support of President Jimmy Carter. The passage of FLPMA was a historic environmental achievement because it changed the BLM from an agency focused on commodity production into one that is required to administer the public lands under their jurisdiction according to the multiple use doctrine, like the U.S Forest Service.

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What Would Tony Merten Think About Our Situation Today?

Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo 1886
Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo and three warriors, 1886 (Wikipedia)

On Saturday, March 2, 1996, I was surprised to receive a large, padded envelope in the mail. The return address showed it had been sent from New Mexico by someone named Tony Merten. I didn’t know who that was until I opened the envelope and found a bright red t-shirt with a large black graphic on its front.  The image was a copy of the famous 1886 photo of the hostile Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo and three of his warriors, taken in Cañon de los Embudos in the Sierra Madre Mountains in northern Mexico during their peace talks with U.S. General George Crook. There was also some text surrounding the image on the t-shirt that read, “MY HEROES HAVE ALWAYS KILLED COWBOYS.”

There wasn’t a note in the package, but the t-shirt reminded me that I’d met Tony at an environmental workshop on public lands grazing at Arizona State University a few weeks earlier, the first weekend of February. The event was sponsored by the Arizona Grazing Clearinghouse, a loose consortium of local public lands grazing activists. I was a founding member of that group and had been one of the featured speakers at the workshop. Prior to that event I’d never met or heard of Tony, but he came up to me after I finished my bit and introduced himself. He complimented me on my presentation and also said that he appreciated all the articles I’d written on the topic and was glad to finally meet me in person.

It wasn’t the first time I’d been recognized for my work. In 1993 I’d been  chosen by the National Wildlife Federation as Arizona’s representative to go to Washington, D.C., for several days as part of a campaign to lobby Congress for public lands range reform. And I was one of the local environmentalists selected to sit on the panel with Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in 1994 when he visited Phoenix to discuss his Rangeland Reform ’94  proposals. But it was quite memorable to have a stranger seek you out at a crowded meeting to shake your hand and compliment you in person.

Several days after receiving the t-shirt I was shocked to learn that Tony had been found dead at his remote home in rural southern New Mexico from an apparent suicide. The news story said that Tony had been under suspicion by local authorities for shooting about a dozen cattle grazing on public land near his house, and that he’d recently sent letters to friends implying that he was going to kill himself. One of those folks had notified the Luna County Sheriff’s office and on February 28 they discovered Tony was sitting dead in the greenhouse behind his house with a pistol in his hand and a bullet hole in his head. He’d obviously been dead for several days. I realized that sending me the t-shirt was one of the last things he’d done, but more importantly, I couldn’t understand why he had killed himself. I decided to keep the t-shirt to remember him.

I wasn’t the only one that couldn’t understand why Tony had killed himself. One of his friends, Will Baker, was a writer. He was so puzzled by Tony’s suicide that he published a book about it in 2000 titled Tony and the Cows. The book included more details about the official investigation into Tony’s death. The effort to identify the killer of the cattle began on February 15 when their carcasses were discovered. Investigators visited the few homes in the area later that day to ask if anyone had seen or heard anything, and Tony’s house was one of them. Tony denied any knowledge of the shootings. The investigators found more evidence the next day and it seemed to point to Tony. They stopped at his place to talk to him again, and were soon joined by the rancher who had owned the cattle. Tony became defensive and the conversations ended.

The following day, February 17, Tony penned the letter to his friends wherein he wrote that humans were destroying the Earth’s ecosystem and he saw “no hope” for the planet. “It is better to check out now than sometime later,” he explained. “Tell everyone I loved them all.” Tony may have killed himself later that day, or another day afterwards, but the official date on his death certificate is February 27.

A few days ago I was cleaning out my dresser and at the bottom of one of the drawers I came across the t-shirt Tony had sent me. I noticed, for the first time, that it’s size was extra large, which made me think that Tony had probably worn it, as he had been a large, athletic man.

Finding the t-shirt also renewed my bewilderment about why Tony had killed himself. Baker suggested in his book that Tony had been very lonely because he lived out in the Chihuahuan Desert by himself and hadn’t had a girlfriend in more than a year. But I decided I would use modern information technology to search through public records online for more information about Tony.

I discovered that his given name was George Anthony Merten. He was called Tony because his father’s first name was George too. He was born in 1952 in Los Angeles and grew up in West Covina, a suburb of LA. He had two brothers and three sisters, and was a star wrestler at West Covina’s Edgewood High School. He subsequently wrestled for the University of Redlands, in nearby San Bernardino County. My online research also discovered that Tony was divorced, and had no children.

Tony Merten
Tony Merten, May 1981 (Marce Guerrein)

On April 12, 1980, a  group of 37 people left San Francisco with the intent to backpack across the entire U.S. They traversed 13 states before finishing at Delaware’s Cape Henlopen State Park on May 27, 1981.  Tony was one of the hikers interviewed there by a newspaper reporter covering the event for the The Baltimore Sun.

“I wish it could go on forever,” he told her. He said that he’d left the U.S. Army, where he’d achieved the rank of lieutenant, in order to join the hike.* “I have achieved autonomy in my life,” he explained, and said that the hike had given him freedom from “boredom, routine, and authority.” Financial solvency was the key, he told her, and he explained he’d achieved it by saving most of his Army pay.

When Tony died he was a leader of the Southern New Mexico Group of the of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club, and an active member of many other environmental groups. Perhaps environmental activism had become the most important thing in his life, and when it looked like it was going to be taken away from him, he decided to end it? But part of his decision to die obviously came from his belief that humans were irrevocably destroying the Earth’s ecosystem. So, in honor of Tony, let’s compare the current situation with the way things were back in 1996.

In regards to the specific issue of livestock grazing on Western public lands, today’s situation isn’t great, but it’s better than the bad old days, when public land managers routinely ignored environmental laws in favor of the ranchers. The fees ranchers pay to graze their cattle on public land were never increased to match the rates paid for private grazing land. But due to the steady pressure applied by local grazing activists, accompanied by lawsuits from conservation groups like Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project, existing environmental laws were finally applied to many grazing allotment management plans – despite strong opposition from ranchers.

In Arizona, for example, many perennial streams on public land have been protected from livestock damage and forage utilization rates on numerous upland pastures have been limited to conservative levels. Public land managers have also started admitting that some areas, like hot deserts, aren’t suited for grazing. And conservation groups have “bought out” ranchers holding grazing permits for public lands that needed to be permanently retired from grazing.

But these days it’s costing the taxpayers more than ever to subsidize public lands ranchers because millions of dollars are now available to them through Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) grants. And well-intentioned but misguided people are still promoting the junk science of Holistic Resource Management (HRM) grazing schemes. Furthermore, there’s a persistent, but small, number of right-wing kooks, like Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, that are ideologically opposed to the concept of public lands, and think they should be turned over to the states or local governments.

Overall, however, there have been significant improvements in livestock grazing management on the nation’s public lands, especially those with sensitive resources. This was accomplished by a generation of dedicated Western environmentalists. Some of the major contributors, like Tom Lusting, Joe Feller, and Bob Ohmart, are already gone. Their achievements are significant because livestock grazing is the most pervasive use of our public lands, with about 27,000 permittees grazing livestock on about 270 million acres.

But these improvements in the management of livestock grazing on public lands are threatened, like so much other progress, by the anti-environmental agenda of the Donald Trump administration. Since he took office in 2017 some Forest Service staff in Arizona have arbitrarily classified controversial livestock management decisions as categorically exempt from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) public review process. And the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is proposing a national pilot project that turns livestock management over to grazing permittees, without any public input, in order to give ranchers more “flexibility” because they know “better than anyone” what to do.

If Tony were alive today I presume he would want to oppose Trump’s regressive environmental policies. Maybe, however, he would think activism is entirely futile now because there’s no hope for the planet because human caused climate change from the burning of fossil fuels is accelerating in alarming ways that weren’t predicted. I wish he was still here though, so that we could try and convince him to help us fight.

* According to the National Personnel Records Center at the National Archives, George Anthony Merten served in the U.S. Army Reserve from 06/24/77 to 06/23/80, achieving the rank of 1st Lieutenant.

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.”

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