Hearings and Business Meetings

SD-366 Energy Committee Hearing Room 02:30 PM

Will Whelan



Oversight Hearing on Public Lands Grazing
September 28, 2005

Mr. Chairman, members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to address livestock grazing on the public lands of the West.  I am Will Whelan, Director of Government Relations of the Idaho Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

Much of the discussion on the topic of grazing today – and most days – is focused on the high level of conflict between environmental groups and public lands ranchers.  I would like to shift that focus to the proposition that conservationists and ranchers have important interests in common and that it is imperative that they work together to promote healthy rangelands.  Although I believe this proposition to be true throughout the West, my comments will draw primarily from our experience in the sagebrush country of the Intermountain West.

First, I would like to say a few words about The Nature Conservancy.  The Nature Conservancy is dedicated to preserving the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive. The Conservancy has more than 1.1 million individual members, including 4,500 in Idaho. We currently have programs in all 50 states and in 30 other nations. 

Our conservation work is grounded in pragmatism, sound science, partnerships with landowners, and tangible results in local places.  An important part of our experience as conservationists comes from the fact that we are a landowner.  Many of our preserves in the West are working ranches where we and our partners manage livestock in an ecologically sustainable manner.  Some of these preserves include grazing allotments on federal lands.  In other words, we are a federal lands grazing permittee at places like Red Canyon Ranch in Wyoming and Pahsimeroi River Ranch in Idaho.

The starting point for my comments is also the most fundamental:  ranchers and wildlife both benefit from healthy rangelands.

Healthy rangelands produce more forage for livestock, resist invasive weeds, and are more resilient after fire.  Each of these qualities is critical to successful long-term ranching operations.  One study of bluebunch wheatgrass-mountain big sagebrush sites demonstrated that healthy range produces more than double the forage than degraded range.  Healthy rangelands also provide essential habitat for a wide range of plants and animals.

The prime responsibility of public land agencies and grazers alike is to manage human activities to ensure rangeland health.

There is cause for all of us to be concerned by what we are seeing across the rangelands of the West.  The rapid pace of degradation, fragmentation, or total loss of sagebrush ecosystems presents a grave threat to both the livestock industry and everyone else who cares about the land.  Sagebrush once covered roughly 150 million acres.  Perhaps 50-60% of the native sagebrush steppe now has either exotic annual grasses, such as cheatgrass and medusahead rye, in the understory or has been totally converted to non-native annual grasslands.  These annual grasses produce poor quality livestock forage compared to the season-long forage provided by the native perennials.  Large areas of sagebrush have been entirely lost to subdivision, roads, alternative crops, and other human development.  Sagebrush habitats are now among the most imperiled ecosystems in North America.

The speed of change in western landscapes is illustrated by the Clover Fire, which in just a few days last summer covered nearly 200,000 acres in southwest Idaho.  Such fires are increasingly common.  Incredibly, sixty percent of the land affected by the Clover Fire had already burned in the previous 5 -10 years.  Highly flammable weeds such as cheatgrass gain a foothold in the wake of these large burns and, in turn, accelerate the frequency of fire in sagebrush country.  Post-fire assessment and appropriate restoration are essential in breaking the cycle of fire followed by invasive weeds followed by yet more fire.
Public policy makers need to comprehend the scope of this threat to rangeland health and recognize that our current land management is not equal to the challenges that face us.  If public lands ranching and wildlife are to thrive in the Intermountain West, we must find new ways to be effective together.

There are many ways in which ranchers and conservationists should work together.  I will address three:  weeds, conversion of ranchlands to subdivisions, and the need for better rangeland monitoring.

Nothing unites people like having a common enemy, and noxious or invasive weeds are about the scariest villain imaginable.  Alien plants such as yellowstar thistle, leafy spurge, and rush skeleton weed degrade the value of rangelands for both livestock and wildlife.  And, they are spreading with breathtaking speed.  Several years ago, the Idaho Department of Agriculture estimated that 8 million acres of rangelands were infested in Idaho alone.  That’s about 15% of the entire state.

In Idaho, The Nature Conservancy has made a major investment in working with local cooperative weed management areas or CWMAs.  These local organizations bring landowners, all levels of government, and groups like ours together to develop projects for fighting weeds.  Here is what we like about the CWMAs:  they are responsive to local needs, they are a vehicle for earning the support of landowners, and they permit us to extend our reach by pooling resources with partners.

Our flagship project is taking place in Hells Canyon, where we work with the Tri-State CWMA to implement a weed control strategy based on prevention, early detection, and rapid response.  Using innovative field survey and remote sensing techniques, we are tracking the spread of yellowstar thistle and other invasive plants.  When we find a new patch in an area of ecological importance, we send in a Conservancy SWAT team to eradicate the weeds before they have a chance to spread.  This is challenging and sometimes frustrating work.  We still have much to learn about how to control a highly invasive plant in this rugged landscape.  But, our effort is beginning to produce results and is growing.  This year we added a second SWAT team and expanded our area of work to include Adams and Owyhee counties in western Idaho.

We want to thank you, Mr. Chairman, for working with your colleagues last Congress to pass S. 144, the Noxious Weeds Control and Eradication Act.  This law authorizes federal support for local weed control efforts such as CWMAs.  Funding this effort should be a high priority for this Congress.

The second area of common interest focuses on the loss of private working ranchlands to subdivisions and residential development.  The western states lead the nation in population growth.  This growth brings many economic benefits to our region.  But, it is also changing the landscapes we cherish.

In 2002, the American Farmland Trust conducted a study of ranchlands in seven western states. They found that over the next twenty years, these states stand to lose 11 percent of all prime ranchlands to urban development.  As cities and subdivisions grow, many ranchers are looking for ways to stay on the land and keep their local communities, custom, and culture alive.

There are good reasons why conservationists should support working rural landscapes that are in danger of being chopped up into ranchettes and subdivisions.  Most importantly, these private lands contain essential wildlife habitat.  For instance, in Wyoming, more than fifty percent of the winter habitat for big game species is on private land.  In Idaho, the Conservancy is concerned about wildlife habitat losses in places such as Henry’s Lake, the valley bottoms of the Upper Salmon River country, and the Boise Foothills.

Numerous studies show negative ecological effects from conversion of ranchlands.  A study in a Colorado watershed compared bird, predator, and plant biodiversity in sprawling areas with that in nature reserves and ranchlands.  Researchers found that rural residential developments supported the highest number of human adapted bird species and domestic predators (dogs and cats) at the expense of native plants and bird species.

Moreover, the fragmentation of working ranches into small parcels closes off options for good stewardship.  Whether it is controlling noxious weeds, improving water quality, or restoring fire adapted ecosystems, it is far more feasible to practice good conservation in a landscape that has intact ranches than in an area with dozens of small parcels – often with absentee owners.

There are success stories across the West.  For instance, this summer, we celebrated a voluntary landowner agreement that will keep a large ranch at Henry’s Lake, virtually at the doorstep of Yellowstone National Park, from being turned into subdivisions.  For years, the Moedl Family had turned down lucrative offers from developers.  With your help, Mr. Chairman, the Bureau of Land Management received a Land and Water Conservation Fund appropriation to secure a conservation easement on important wildlife habitat.  The Nature Conservancy negotiated the agreement with the Moedls.  This was a win for wildlife and a multi-generational ranching family.

The Grassland Reserve Program is another success story.  This program within the Farm Bill gave financial incentives to ranchers who agreed not to convert their ranchlands to other uses.  The program was strongly supported by both the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and The Nature Conservancy.  We hope that the 2007 Farm Bill will continue this important effort.

It is clear that we can work together for voluntary incentives, such as GRP, that protect family ranches while providing clean water, natural areas, and wildlife habitat

My third suggestion for working together involves rangeland health monitoring.  Monitoring is a mundane label for a thing that is absolutely fundamental to good management:  understanding the condition and trend of the land.  If we do not know what is happening on the land, we cannot make sound decisions.   Our partners in the ranching industry have, like us, made strong calls for improved monitoring.

One way to think about the importance of monitoring is imagine what highly successful public rangeland management might look like.  Imagine that we make all the right decisions today and in ten years we return to this committee to celebrate our success.  Here are some of the elements that would make us proud.  First, we would talk about how we have achieved a broadly shared understanding of the condition of our rangelands as well as their ecological trend.  Public land managers have both the capacity and the policy support to manage grazing in response to range condition.  Our improved understanding of the land and its needs has allowed us to direct the public’s money wisely to places and projects that make the most difference for rangeland health.  Ranchers are regarded as part of the solution – not merely the source of the problem.  Where problems are identified, the agencies and ranchers have the flexibility to shape management measures that work for the rancher and are accountable to the condition of the land.  “One size fits all” thinking is a thing of the past.  There is trust among the public land managers, the industry, and the public. 

Needless to say, that scenario does not describe what we have today.  What needs to change?  The Conservancy believes key success is having a scientifically sound, cost-effective, and fully implemented system for monitoring rangeland health.  Unless and until we have a strong grasp on what is happening on our public rangelands, the trust, the flexibility, and the support for action will remain elusive.

For the last four years, The Nature Conservancy has been working in a collaborative effort with ranchers, recreationists and environmentalists in Owyhee County, Idaho.  Interestingly, when the various groups first came forward with their proposals, the Owyhee Cattle Association and the Conservancy both arrived at the meeting with very similar calls for improved landscape monitoring.  Monitoring is not an uncomplicated issue but it is one that can unite different interests.

Here are some suggestions:

? Reach beyond the land management agencies.  Universities, industry groups, and non-governmental organizations have much to contribute.  The level of their understanding of and support for the monitoring system will do much to determine the level of conflict in rangeland management.

? Conduct monitoring at multiple scales.  In addition to allotment or pasture monitoring, we need to look at the landscape and even regional scale to comprehend the truly huge changes we are seeing in rangeland health.  These broader views will help us allocate resources to the places where they are most needed and fashion landscape-specific strategies.  Exciting, new, and cost-effective methods for large-scale monitoring using a combination of remote sensing and on-the-ground data offer real promise.

? Increase the agency’s capacity to put people in the field for monitoring at all levels and strengthen agency-wide systems for continuing education for field staff.

The need to improve monitoring is not unique to the federal land agencies.  The Conservancy has examined its own programs throughout the world and determined that we need to greatly improve our own capacity for monitoring and measuring success.  We have created an organization-wide team to address this challenge and made a commitment that we will change the way we work in response to what we learn.


In the public policy arena, Americans today tend to focus on what divides us.  Battles over rangelands will undoubtedly continue.  But, the Nature Conservancy believes it is possible – even essential – that environmentalists and ranchers work together.  We face many of the same threats.  We share important interests in promoting rangeland health.  Whether one calls it “cooperative conservation” or just being good neighbors on the range, our most productive work is done when we find common ground.