By Zach Hagadone
It has been nearly six months since lightning sparked a fire in the sagebrush steppe along the Idaho-Oregon border northwest of Silver City. The so-called Soda Fire was intense, exploding to more than 270,000 acres in the space of nine days. Video footage of the fire showed rolling waves of flame consuming a landscape 400 square miles in size. The black scar was so large it could be seen from space. Referred to as a “huge flaming deluge” by the Bureau of Land Management, the blaze burned more than 50,000 acres of sensitive sage grouse habitat, killed 27 wild horses and tore through 41 grazing allotments, making grazing there impossible for at least the next two seasons. Land managers are still assessing the damage and working out a plan to rehabilitate the area.
While the sprawling expanses of sagebrush in the West may look placid, they are volatile, delicate places where the smallest spark can grow into a disaster. About 100 miles west of the Soda Fire site, a different kind of range fire was touched off in January of this year, when armed anti-government militants overran the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside Burns, Ore.
The self-styled militia members were there ostensibly to protest against the sentencing of a pair of Oregon ranchers who lit fires on BLM land that later grew out of control. Led by brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy—whose father, Cliven Bundy, faced off against federal officials over grazing fees in a 2014 armed standoff at his Nevada ranch—the Malheur occupation quickly escalated into a general protest against all federal management of public land and a call for rebellion across the country.
The final occupiers, including a couple from Riggins, were taken into custody Feb. 11 after 41 days. In the course of the takeover, 54-year-old militant Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, a former rancher from Arizona, was shot and killed by authorities.
The ringleaders of the occupation, including the Bundy brothers, were arrested following Finicum’s death. On Feb. 3, a federal grand jury indicted 16 of the occupiers on charges of conspiracy to impede officers of the United States. Days later, the elder Bundy, who had flown to Oregon to protest on behalf of his sons, was also arrested. Meanwhile, the Bundys and two other militants were indicted Feb. 17 on 16 charges related to the 2014 standoff. Cliven Bundy, 69, has since been denied bail. If convicted, he may spend the rest of his life behind bars.
In its announcement of the Feb. 3 indictments, the FBI characterized the Malheur occupation as a “long and traumatic episode for the citizens of Harney County and the members of the Burns Paiute tribe.”
For Merrill Beyeler, an Idaho rancher and lawmaker, the trauma extends far beyond the sagebrush plains outside Burns, Ore.
“It’s a tragedy for the West,” he said. “What I think is occurring in the West is a lack of trust, and a lack of trust is created when we divide people and start to put people on opposite sides of the fence, and we don’t look at the larger issues.”
Seeing the Forest for the Trees
Merrill Beyeler is one of the rarest animals in the Idaho Statehouse. A rancher, Mormon and Republican from Leadore, Beyeler was elected to the Idaho House in 2014 on a conservation platform—unseating Lenore Hardy Barrett, who had served in the rural district since 1992 and was a Tea Partier before the party started.
Beyeler drops references to climate change where many of his colleagues would deny it even exists, much less is affected by human activity. A former teacher, Beyeler is soft-spoken, chooses his words carefully and rarely breaks eye contact. His office in the warren of cubicles in the Garden Level of the East Wing is filled with large-format photos of his 12 grandchildren, mountaintop vistas and close ups of wildflowers.
When asked his opinion of the then-ongoing armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Beyeler thought for a moment while he absently doodled on a notepad.
“One of the things I think about, is there are a couple of paths that we can choose when we think about some of the frustration that does exist on the Western landscape, and this is one of those paths,” he said. “Eventually those folks are going to go home. When they do go home, what disruption have they created in that part of the world? Will anything have changed? It’s a tragedy.”
For Beyeler, one of the chief casualties in the Malheur occupation was a true understanding of the conditions that exist on the range. For all its fiery rhetoric, the standoff muddied the public discussion of land management issues in the West, which Beyeler said are “not really that complicated.”
“If I was to put an umbrella over it, it would be: What do we want these landscapes to look like? What do we want them to be?” he said.
Beginning to approach those broad questions means literally starting from the ground up with the preservation and survival of the sagebrush steppe, which, as the Soda Fire illustrated, is in a precarious position. According to Beyeler, who runs 800 head of cattle on the ranch his father purchased in 1959, the watershed must first be addressed.
“There’s nothing more important in the West than water,” he said, adding the best protection of the watershed is ensuring the right kinds of trees and plants are growing on it—specifically, aspens.
According to ecologists at Utah State University, quaking aspen stands contribute nearly 100 percent soil cover, both protecting the soil from erosion and increasing snowpack and runoff. The trouble is, aspens have been retreating from most Western landscapes for decades. Referred to by forest managers as “aspen decline,” the phenomenon has resulted in the loss of 60 percent of the aspen stands in eastern Idaho over the past 100 years. Aspen declines have also been reported in central and northern Idaho.
As the aspens have disappeared, they have been replaced by coniferous trees, which not only don’t offer the same benefits but grow riotously and close together, increasing fuel levels on the forest floor. When the fires inevitably roar through, they are more intense and scorch the undergrowth, stripping it of vital plant species and opening the way for invaders like cheatgrass to proliferate.
While declining aspen groves and invasive cheatgrass aren’t as headline-grabbing as armed militants, and a new “Sagebrush Rebellion” makes for easier newspaper copy, Beyeler said they are some of ranchers’ chief concerns. Furthering distrust among land users and managers only make things worse.
“I think these are the things we need to focus on in our Western landscape, and I worry that the focus is taken away from the very things we need to focus on,” Beyeler said. “If we take care of [encouraging aspen and limiting conifer growth], you’re going to have a healthier watershed and more water. Can’t we agree on that, and can’t we take those steps to do that? If we focus on that, we’re going to actually make progress.”
John Peavey echoes much of Beyeler’s assessment of the challenges facing ranchers in Idaho and the West. He, too, saw the Malheur occupation as unwelcome and unfortunate for everyone affected.
“I think the community of Burns pretty well represents what I felt,” said Peavey, who runs 38,000 ewes, 2,000 lambs and about 2,000 head of cattle, including yearlings, on a sweeping ranch outside of Carey, Idaho, that was established by his grandfather. “I thought it was a distractive issue.”
Like Beyeler, Peavey points to the unbalanced ecological situation on the range as a threat not only to the health of the sagebrush steppe but the economics of ranching. He said large acreages of public land historically grazed by sheep along the Snake River in the fall and winter have been closed during those seasons, requiring ranchers to purchase hay at prices hovering around $200 per ton. As a result, many of the remaining sheep ranchers have begun moving their herds to pastures in Arizona and California where they lamb much earlier—a heavy expense in itself.
“So these ranges are going unused, and it’s a problem,” Peavey said. “The fall grazing does something that a lot of people don’t appreciate.The plants grow up in the spring and summer and run out of moisture, and the perennial plants make a seed. But as different fires sweep the countryside, the perennials die out. With the fall use, there’s a replanting of a young perennial plant, and the perennials are the ones we want to promote—the ones the sage grouse need. … On today’s range, all you’ve got is these old plants, and the fire takes a long time to burn up all that fuel above ground, and it’ll kill the roots. But those young plants that are the result of managed fall grazing survive, and they lend a resilience to the rangeland, instead of getting overrun with cheatgrass.”
If there is a tension between ranchers and land managers, Peavey said it lies with opening more public lands to grazing. However, he added, agencies like the BLM are “paralyzed” by the fear of being sued by some conservation groups should they open more land or alter practices—even though many management officials are receptive to those ideas. That fear extends to virtually any management-related change on the range, Peavey added.
“I think there’s a frustration in the grazing community that [BLM] should be getting on with some range improvements that promote the regeneration and the resilience of perennial plants,” he said. “The majority of the people I deal with understand that restoration is a positive thing.”
Speaking from the BLM office in Twin Falls, public affairs specialist Heather Tiel-Nelson agreed legal action presents a high hurdle for the agency.
“Litigation definitely presents those challenges. Absolutely,” she said. “We also have our environmental regulations that we have to comply with. That can slow down the process where we can’t be as nimble sometimes. Being able to, say, get in there early and graze off some of the coming cheatgrass that could maybe impact some of the later seasons management, it requires an environmental assessment.”
Meanwhile, Scott Sayler, a BLM rangeland management specialist based in Burley, said the agency is doing what it can to work around some of the constraints it may face related to lawsuits.
“We definitely need to follow our permits and be in line with that, and that does limit flexibility in some cases,” he said. “Because of litigation, we’re trying to write those environmental assessments now on new permit renewals to provide that flexibility we need to effectively manage rangelands. But it does take some time to get through that.”
Specifically, Sayler added, that means enabling ranchers to react to local conditions more or less as they’re happening.
“If it’s a really wet spring and it comes early and there’s a lot of forage, maybe we can go out two weeks early instead of waiting until the date on the permit,” he said. “In every situation that’s the way we’re going. It’s a long process, the bar is high as far as NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] standards, but we’re getting through it. We’re working down that path.”
Idaho Cattle Association Executive Vice President Wyatt Prescott put a finer point on the issue, blaming the lack of speed in resolving some of the frustrations borne by ranchers related to active rangeland management on a vicious cycle of bureaucracy and litigation fueled by big courtroom payouts.
“Ultimately, our concern is the management is being set through a court process and through layers of administrative bureaucracy instead of based on what the actual resources is providing,” Prescott said, adding his industry would like to see a return to “on-the-ground management” and “some commonsense amendments” to NEPA and the Endangered Species Act to make them less restrictive.
“[We need] to give the agencies—the government—the flexibility to be able to manage based on the ground, instead of being bogged down in layers of administrative process that in turn have created an environment that is very susceptible to litigation,” he said. “If [plaintiffs] are victorious, they get paid substantially. And that creates a cycle in which they come back repeatedly with more lawsuits.”
Still, Prescott said any suggestion that ranchers and the livestock industry are at odds with land managers like BLM is the product of misunderstanding at best—a perception made vividly clear during the Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupation.
“What happened in Malheur is they’re trying to oversimplify it and point the finger at the federal government and saying ‘they’re out to get us.’ That’s not the case at all. It’s a process of litigation and layers of policy and radical obstructionist groups that have ultimately forced the government into that position where they’re just trying to get through this process,” Prescott said. “From the livestock industry and ranching industry’s perspective, we don’t feel that way. We know we have to work with those agencies.”
All Together Now
Like many others, Prescott watched events unfold at the Malheur occupation with a sense of dismay—not only for the community of Burns, but his industry.
“It set us back,” Prescott said. “It’s been a concern of ours in the cattle industry that what happened out there somehow depicted our industry in the same light. We want to be very clear in stating that in no way do those people represent ranchers, nor do they have a full grasp on the true issues we’re faced with on the management of public lands. What happened out there is completely unproductive in addressing these issues.”
Rather, Prescott, Beyeler, Peavey and BLM officials unanimously agreed that collaboration is key—no matter the obstacle.
“In the beginning, there were some attitudes that livestock grazing was rape and ruin. That’s dissipated. … [But] I think all ranchers that are hands-on have got some frustrations.Most of us feel that communication is where we need to be working,” said Peavey, who served more than two decades in the Idaho Legislature as both and Republican and Democrat, and whose grandfather was appointed from Idaho to the United States Senate twice—first following the death of Sen. Frank Gooding, and second following the death of Sen. William Borah.
“There needs to be more communication and sitting down with the responsible environmental groups. You know, go out and look at stuff. That’s where you solve problems,” he added. “There’s some problems, no doubt about that. But I don’t think that group out in Oregon reflected those problems.”
To further collaboration, Beyeler is working on a project with the University of Idaho, Nature Conservancy, Wood River Land Trust and Idaho Cattle Association to establish a rangeland school and research center on 20,000 acres of public and private land between Fairfield and Carey, north of the Wood River.
Comprising an entire watershed, Beyeler said the land includes all the things that make up the Western landscape, and is envisioned as a place to educate the next generation of both ranchers and land managers, as well as create a platform for research and the opportunity for public outreach.
“When was the last time you saw the Cattle Association, the Wood River Land Trust and the Nature Conservancy, all their logos on the top of the letterhead, all asking for the same thing? Now that’s progress,” he said. “This could be a game-changer.”
For Prescott, the rangeland school provides a new way to collect scientific data to drive management decisions, rather than “in the courtroom or fear of the courtroom.” Specifically, he said ranchers are the ultimate experts about what works and doesn’t work on the range, but that knowledge is often the result of years of trial and error. There is little, if any, quantifiable data to support many of their methods.
“But this isn’t a matter of finding a place where we can gather the science up to validate our theories,” Prescott said. “It’s an area where we can truly look at practices and whether they can be scientifically supported or not. … We’ve got to find these production- and conservation-compatible practices and this is going to be a site where we can actually do experimental research to truly investigate what those practices are.”
Sayler, with the BLM, agreed that permitees often know best, which is why his office makes it a priority to work alongside ranchers in the field as much as possible, as well as participate in rangeland training activities with ranchers and even work with the local Future Farmers of America chapter.
“The key to me is being out there on the ground with them and seeing the same things and working through those deals to come up with some management approach that works for both us and the permitees,” Sayler said. “This job is about working with people. It always has been.”
While he recognizes the process is often slow and cumbersome, Prescott said if past is prelude, he is confident new techniques and policies will eventually open up greater opportunities for effective, healthy range management—agitation by radical groups notwithstanding.
“We talk about invasives and wildfire being the No. 1 and 2 threats to sage grouse. Well, literally one of the only tools to defend ourselves against those threats is the cow, is livestock,” he said.
“We’ve seen the same thing come full circle in how livestock can benefit riparian areas. Time will tell, and it takes patience and it takes collaboration, sitting at a table together and being able to have tough conversations without exhibiting the type of behavior that was exhibited in Oregon.” Prescott added. “That’s the only way we’re going to get it done, is by working with one another.”
Zach Hagadone is the editor of the Boise Weekly, where this story was originally published.
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