, Jan. 30 (UPI) -- The practice of allowing cattle to graze on public lands has come under intense scrutiny in southeastern Oregon as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management prepares a plan that will regulate 5,000 square miles of high desert there for the next 15 to 20 years.
BLM has said it will choose a course of action that involves few changes to the current resource management plan. Opponents say under current grazing practices, the fragile habitats of the region will continue to suffer degradation, that greater supervision is needed and that cattle grazing must be curtailed. BLM says it carefully monitors the lands and that its management practices will protect the environment. The public comment period on the plan closes this Friday.
The Lakeview district managed by BLM has many streams as well as high desert regions and high wet meadows. Cattle range in all of these areas. The 5,000 square mile district is in sparsely populated Lake and Harney counties, where about 15,000 people live on 18,000 square miles. The federal government has made formal arrangements with ranchers for more than a century that grant permits allowing privately owned cattle to graze on public lands. The government retains the right to limit the way in which the 400,000 square miles of BLM land is used.
At the heart of the grazing issue is the practice of allowing cattle free access to streams. Opponents of the Lakeview plan point to the fact a large number of streams in the district have been degraded by grazing. They want to limit grazing, restore habitats, protect the natural vegetation and allow native fish and wildlife to flourish instead of cattle.
There is no argument that unregulated grazing along stream banks, often called riparian corridors, eliminates much of the vegetation necessary to maintain stream health. A great deal of stream health has to do with maintaining water cool enough for fish and other aquatic animals to survive.
When trees and grass are eliminated along streams, not only does the entire look of the site change, but stream water temperatures rise. Hundreds of cattle along stream banks tend to cause erosion, leading to widening of stream beds and further water warming. Excessive sedimentation becomes a problem.
Opponents of the plan want access to streams to be much more limited and for gazing in wet meadows to be stopped. Some propose the district transition to a tourism and recreation economic base.
Scott Florence, BLM field manager for the Lakeview resource area, defended the district's decision to go with a plan that does not impose any further restrictions on cattle grazing.
"I would say overall our riparian areas are in overall pretty good condition. We exceed the bureau standard, which is to have at least 75 percent of our riparian areas in proper functioning condition," Florence said.
He said if grazing is a cause for not meeting one of the standards, adjustments are required to be made prior to the next grazing season.
Others disagree with that assessment. Craig Miller, a member of Sierra Club's Juniper group, which is active in the Lakeview area, has a ranch in the district but does not run cattle.
"I've lived here for the last 20 years and I haven't seen any improvement. If anything, I've seen deterioration of these areas," Miller said.
According to Miller, 80 percent to 90 percent of the streams that have been tested in the district do not meet water quality standards. But Dick Nichols, a manager with Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality, told United Press International the Lakeview district was a low priority and it would be years before the stream situation there was monitored directly by the state.
Much of the problem has to do with water temperature. BLM has questioned whether realistic temperature standards are being applied and the issue is being studied. Miller points to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency list of 44 streams in the Lakeview district that do not meet environmental standards. Miller said he stopped cattle grazing on his ranch when he bought it and that the changes in vegetation were dramatic and environmentally beneficial.
But even ranchers who support the plan, and the fact it essentially makes no changes to current practice, have concerns. John O'Keefe, a member of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association and a rancher in the Lakeview district, runs about 1,000 head of cattle. He admits there can be an impact on streams but believes it can be addressed by seasonal grazing, fencing and diverting water off-stream.
"Through grazing systems we can improve water quality without removing livestock," he said.
O'Keefe does not think it is necessary to completely restrict cattle from the riparian corridors, but worries language in BLM's resource management plan is too open to interpretation and could allow for a crackdown on cattle grazing that would have dire economic impacts on the region.
The science is straightforward, according to Patricia McDowell, a professor of geography who specializes in studying stream channels and riparian zones, called fluvial geomorphology, at the University of Oregon in Eugene.
"There's a pretty clear consensus from scientists in the field that grazing has contributed to ecological degradation of the riparian zones and the stream channels. It's not the only thing but its one of the important factors," she said.
McDowell offered a comment about BLM policies in general, without commenting directly on the Lakeview district plan.
"Over several decades the BLM has been improving its management of riparian areas and other grazing lands and slowly has been adding fencing to subdivide these grazing allotments. ... I think the range and the streams look better than they did 20 or 50 years ago, but they still probably are not as good as good as they should be to support the native fish and other aquatic species," McDowell said.
One of the most vocal opponents of the BLM plan is the Oregon Natural Desert Association, based in Portland. Bill Marlett, ONDA's executive director told UPI: "What BLM uses to define acceptable levels of grazing is different from what the person on the street might consider acceptable. Their threshold is based on criteria they've developed called 'properly functioning condition' and reflects a situation that most people would find reprehensible."
Many other species would benefit from the removal of livestock from public lands, Marlett said and pointed to the nearby 400 square mile Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, which bounced back ecologically when cattle were banned.
"BLM is not even engaging in a discussion about strictly allocating some lands to wildlife," he added. When told BLM said it was properly applying environmental principles, Marlett said, "That's total baloney."
Some organizations exist chiefly for the purpose of reducing the impact of grazing on public lands. The National Public Grazing Lands Campaign wants to "end abusive livestock grazing on the nation's public lands" and proposes legislation to pay cash to existing permit holders to end their federal grazing permits.
The group's legislative counsel, Mark Salvo, told UPI that: "The Lakeview plan ... is very much weighted toward resource extraction and resource use, including grazing and off road vehicle use, even in a time when the public, the agency and the science are beginning to show that there are other, perhaps more beneficial uses, for these resources in these ecosystems than grazing and opening up to off road vehicle use."
The Federal Land Policy Management Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act should be recognized when writing up BLM management plans, Salvo said.
There is a middle ground, according to Ken Visser, a range land management specialist in BLM's Washington office who specializes in grazing administration.
"It remains a challenge ... to find management systems that are compatible with riparian improvement and meeting the needs of livestock operators who have grown dependant on BLM land during summer months when riparian areas are particularly attractive to grazers," Visser said.