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.

Tony and the Cows: A True Story from the Range Wars (Paperback)


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Public Lands Grazing is a Legal Racket

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s refusal to recognize federal law has brought needed attention to the government’s program of permitting livestock grazing on public lands. Bundy claims the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) violated his freedom by not allowing him to graze his cattle for free on the federal land adjacent to his ranch. But a closer examination of the government’s grazing program reveals that the U.S. taxpayers are the ones who are really being abused.

The regulation of livestock grazing through the creation of separate grazing allotments on Western public lands is the result of the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. Grazing on public lands is primarily administered by two federal agencies. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Forest Service oversees it on National Forest land, while the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages it on BLM land.

In order to legally use a federal grazing allotment, a rancher must first obtain the permit for that allotment. It’s often claimed that ranchers can buy a grazing permit. But that’s not true. The federal courts have repeatedly found that grazing permits aren’t private property or a lease, but a privilege to be managed by the local federal land manager in the interests of the general public.

What ranchers are really getting when they buy a private ranch base property that’s associated with a public lands grazing allotment is the opportunity to be the first in line to obtain the grazing permit for that allotment. The likelihood that the grazing permit will be reissued to the ranch’s new owner is so high that it inflates the market value of the base property. The difference in the property’s value with and without the grazing permit is considered the market value of the permit. This value is primarily a function of the maximum number of livestock that are listed on the permit. Most allotments aren’t capable of supporting the maximum number of permitted animals, so the actual (authorized) numbers that are grazed are often much lower than the permitted numbers, frequently less than half. This common discrepancy between permitted and actual livestock numbers is the result of ranchers fighting to keep their permitted numbers as high as possible in order to inflate the market values of their private base properties.

Once a rancher obtains a grazing permit, they only have to pay $1.35 per month per animal to graze their livestock on public lands. (This amount is adjusted slightly every year.) They only have to pay for the animals that are actually using the land, not the permitted number of animals. And the agencies usually take their word on the number they’re grazing. Not only is this a below market grazing fee, but it doesn’t come close to generating enough revenue to appropriately manage livestock grazing on federal lands.

Arizona’s Prescott National Forest, for example, encompasses about 1.25 million acres, and the vast majority of it is permitted for livestock grazing. According to Forest Service officials, the Prescott only collects about $110,000 in grazing fees per year, and only half of that money, or about $55,000, is returned to the forest’s range betterment fund to help manage livestock grazing across the entire forest. But with the cost of a new livestock-watering site running at about $15,000, and new livestock fencing going for at least $1,000 per mile, it’s easy to see that the forest can’t afford to get a lot done.

Taxpayers Are Subsidizing Livestock Grazing on Public Lands

The agencies try to split the cost of these range “improvements” with the ranchers. But few ranchers have the ability to spend a lot because most public lands ranches are only marginally profitable because of the unsuitability of most public land for grazing. The cost of implementing livestock management plans wasn’t as big of a problem in the bad old days, when public lands ranchers were able to do pretty much whatever they wanted and get away with it. But the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Endangered Species Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) in the 1970s created opportunities for conservationists to use the courts to force public land managers to start managing livestock grazing in the public’s interest. The application of these environmental laws has resulted in significant improvements in the ecological health of the land. Still, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that compliance with these laws began to become the norm on public rangelands.

This overdue application of improved grazing allotment management plans created complaints from many ranchers because they were so expensive to implement. And when ranchers didn’t have the money to pay for their portion of the costs, the agencies often required them to reduce the size of their herds. This simple strategy of reducing livestock numbers usually produced improvements in the health of the land that exceeded the results obtained from the implementation of intensive livestock management schemes. And it cost a lot less too. But ranchers complained and so Congress bailed them out. The 2008 Farm Bill expanded the USDA’s Natural Resources and Conservation Services (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to allow cost-sharing grants to be awarded to public lands ranchers. (They were historically ineligible for EQIP grants.)

Public lands ranchers are now allowed to use EQIP grants to help fund their portions of the costs of implementing improved livestock management plans. Tens of millions of dollars in EQIP grants have been given out to public lands ranchers across the West. Most of the money has been spent to build waters and fences to maintain or increase livestock numbers, despite the fact that the words “environmental quality” are in the program’s title. One of the most popular uses of EQIP grants has been to build new livestock watering sites in little-used upland areas and claim they’re protecting riparian areas because they’re drawing cattle away from streams. There’s no evidence, however, that these upland waters draw enough cattle away from the streams to adequately protect them. Also, these new waters often bring livestock to dry upland areas that were rarely grazed before, sometimes creating new problems.

As you can easily see, it’s difficult to understand how any sane person could describe the federal government’s public lands grazing program as being unfair to ranchers. Unless, of course, you believe that public lands ranchers should be exempt from environmental laws and are entitled to generous subsidies. The sweetheart deal these ranchers are getting from the taxpayers is even more inexplicable if you consider the relative insignificance of the economic impact of public lands grazing. The Department of the Interior’s FY2012 Economic Report, for example, showed that grazing on all Western public lands accounted for only about 1.6% of livestock receipts in the 17 Western states. It would make a lot more sense for Congress to create a fund to compensate public lands ranchers to voluntarily relinquish their grazing permits if they don’t want to pay to implement better livestock management. These grazing allotments could then be permanently retired and the taxpayers wouldn’t have to keep throwing good money after bad.

Public Lands Multiple Use Doctrine Threatened by Ranchers

cliven bundy
Cliven Bundy (Wikipedia)

In the wake of the fiasco created by public lands rancher Cliven Bundy in Nevada, some ranchers are making excuses for him by claiming the problem was caused by the way the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service are managing our public lands. These federal agencies are forcing ranchers off public lands, they claim, because the multiple use doctrine has been distorted by the courts in response to frivolous lawsuits filed by environmentalists.

But in order for this complaint to be true, the concept of multiple use would have to mean that all uses should be allowed on all public lands – and that’s not the law. The multiple use doctrine these agencies are supposed to follow when managing our public lands was established by the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960. This law only applied to Forest Service lands, but the doctrine was also applied to BLM lands with the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. Multiple is defined as the, “harmonious and coordinated management of the various resources without permanent impairment of the productivity of the land and the quality of the environment with consideration being given to the relative values of the resources and not necessarily to the combination of uses that will give the greatest economic return or the greatest unit output.”

In other words, all activities shouldn’t be permitted on all public lands and the objective of public lands management isn’t necessarily the maximization of commodity production – it’s to establish the appropriate mix of uses in the best interests of the general public. That’s just common sense.

The successes environmentalists have enjoyed in the federal courts occurred because these agencies weren’t following the law. In the bad old days, there was scarcely a piece of public land in the West that didn’t have a cow on it. The lawsuits forced the agencies to end or reduce livestock grazing where it was an inappropriate use – places like hot deserts, sensitive endangered species habitat, fragile alpine meadows, and stream side riparian areas. It’s ironic that so many of the stories about Mr. Bundy have shown his cattle standing in the middle of the Virgin River. It’s a good example of his poor land stewardship, and why the federal government needs to continue to regulate public lands ranchers.

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