Guest commentary: Roots of land management found in Fence Wars and Taylor Grazing Act
Not long ago, the loudest advocates for government regulation were the ranchers of Colorado. One man who heard them was Edward T. Taylor, a representative to the United States Congress from Colorado and former District Attorney for the 9th Judicial District.
It was the early 1930s. Vast herds of cattle owned as financial investments by Eastern businessmen ran rampant over public range. It was common for cattle barons to instruct their workers to fence in public land and any small-time rancher who dared cut a fence risked his life, no matter the law. Despite the supposed Fence Wars Truce of 1884, illegal fencing continued and range management was nonexistent.
Investors who owned mega-herds were indifferent to ecology from which they profited. Their minimum-wage cowboys were paid for one thing only: to maximize profit. Foreshadowing how many present-day companies maintain a culture of environmental irresponsibility, a cowboy who hesitated to graze the land into dust was quickly and easily replaced. The people financially gaining most were too far removed from the land and the land suffered.
Local ranchers and homesteaders were in the impossible position of competing for grazing and water in an unregulated public-land free for all where violence ruled. They saw ecological devastation and understood its causes, but what could they do? They could not win the Fence Wars on their own.
They demanded action from their elected officials. The combination of ranchers’ protestation, and economic devastation from the worsening Dust Bowl, moved Rep. Taylor to get the Taylor Grazing Act passed by Congress in 1934. It was not foresight that led to the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act; by 1934 it was obvious that many ranges were on the brink of desertification. The Dust Bowl was a warning sign that no one could miss. Congress finally saw the need for scientific management of public rangeland — this act was a rough first attempt, but it was a start.
The structures set up by the Taylor Grazing Act became the Bureau of Land Management and set the stage for Land Management Departments at state and county levels all over the country. Legislation specifically for the control of invasive plant species came later but is rooted in the same history.
The overuse and ecological devastation that led to the Taylor Grazing Act is still healing; it caused dust bowl conditions on the Front Range and opened the entire state, including Pitkin County, to invasive plants. These invasive plants (legally named “noxious weeds”) often arrived in contaminated hay and took root in weakened native ecosystems. By the 1920s, millions of acres of the West were covered in cheatgrass. Increases in other invasive species followed.
These plants are not evil — in nature, a plant is simply living how it evolved to live. Each plant evolved in different conditions, with different survival strategies. A plant that evolved in the dry climate of North Africa, like cheatgrass, may do well in Colorado and may do even better if native grasses are too damaged to compete. If a monoculture forms, ask: What is the history of this land? Was it overused? Is it recovering from historical overuse? Is there more recent overuse, or a change in the type of use? What disturbance happened here recently? What did this land look like in the 1800s? The 1300s?
The Land Management Department of Pitkin County exists to help with these questions and to continue the work started in 1934 to restore ecological conditions that will aid native plants. The department manages 277 properties and more than 300 miles of roadside for ecological health, enforces Colorado’s Noxious Weed Act on private land in unincorporated Pitkin County, and offers plant-health advice to landowners.
Edward T. Taylor, who stuck his neck out to protect the ranchers and ecosystems of Colorado, rests in Rosebud Cemetery in Glenwood Springs.
Liz Mauro joined Pitkin County in May as a land manager and environmental compliance specialist. She has a background in natural resource management and is an avid knitter.