Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
October 2, 2009
Venturing into the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign a while back, I found myself suspect on a couple of levels. Some have wondered how a cattle rancher could think himself an environmentalist, or even a conservationist, and others laugh and suspect I’d change sides if my horses or cows were at issue.
Fair enough observations, but off the mark, I’d say, particularly when they come from people wishing to preserve mechanical (includes motorized) travel through our forests and other wild lands.
There’s no doubt many of the early cattlemen created havoc on the range by running too many animals on too few acres, but those sins of the past began a collective course correction in the late 1800s. Men like John Wesley Powell and John Muir, scientists and conservationists both, understood the need for cattle ranchers to have enough land, through communal grazing ground, to pasture their animals. This was part of the germination of the national forest concept as we know it today. Their writings helped publicize the errors of the cattle and sheep ranchers, in a period when zealous concern for the condition of forest lands in the West overtook the country. Oversight was not far behind.
Thus began the transformation of arid Western lands from an unregulated system of grazing into one of stringent scientific investigation and strong supervision from the federal government.
If you’re worried about losing some “mechanical” trails, remember that cattle ranchers lost millions of acres in the expropriation efforts that resulted in the United States Forest Service. A 200-year-old communal grazing ground, covering hundreds of thousands of acres in parts of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, was unilaterally confiscated by the government, a taking eventually condoned by the Supreme Court.
I’m not whining about that, for only improvement could eventually come from the establishment of uniform grazing rules pertaining to sheep, cattle and horses. Understandably, the stockmen complained the loudest when these changes began, but in the long run, the advantage accrued to them. Cattlemen were forced to look inward to make the necessary changes that would allow them to continue to operate, which in turn brought about a scientific approach to grazing practices.
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It is not the purpose of this column to argue science or lifestyle, but I find it astonishing that people who believe firmly in the science of global warming or the protection of our wild lands can, without blink of an eye, ignore at least a hundred years of credible scientific research that acknowledges cattle grazing as a reasonable, if not beneficial, use on our public lands.
The presence of cattle is obvious, just as the presence of buffalo once was, because of their size and natural dispositions, but to say that they have “huge” or “grave” deleterious effects on forest land is to miss the point. To assume these creatures cause lasting damage, because of one’s enhanced ability to notice something alive in the forest by its size, is to admit an ignorance of the subject at hand.
Just as all legitimate cattlemen have learned to make every effort to graze their animals in a usufructuary manner, perhaps it makes sense for the mechanized advocates to look inward and learn how to mitigate the possible damage they inflict upon our lands, rather than relying on partisanship to defend their position. It’s time the under-funded Forest Service applies the same kind of scientific study to the rolling of wheels that it has devoted to the grazing of grasses, so that we have a quantifiable methodology applicable to mechanized travel. From there, we can have meaningful conversation.
To quote John Wesley Powell, by allowing mechanized travel “the land can disappear from underneath us. We will destroy the land without realizing what is happening until it’s too late.”
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