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Partnerships for Working Ranches: Key to Rangeland Health
Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell
Public Lands Council, Spring Conference
Washington , DC — March 26, 2007


It’s a pleasure to be here with you today.


I have 33 years of experience in natural resource management, mostly with the Forest Service. I’ve served as district ranger, forest supervisor, and regional forester. In the course of that time, I have worked closely with many different permittees and grazing associations. I have had the pleasure of personally knowing many ranchers.


The Ranching Tradition
So I know firsthand how important these relationships are for the Forest Service and for the people we serve in the West. As you know, ranchers and livestock grazers were on the land long before the Forest Service. The western writer Wallace Stegner once said, “I have known enough range cattle to recognize them as wild animals; and the people who herd them have … the dignity of rareness; they belong on the frontier … and have a look of rightness.”


Like Wallace Stegner, I would much rather see open rangelands grazed by cattle than condos and shopping malls. In short, ranching is part of the West—and more: It is part of the American tradition.


The Forest Service is proud to have had a role in that tradition. Our relationship goes back more than a hundred years. We have rich accounts from a century ago of early Forest Service employees working with ranching families and dealing with grazing issues. Ranching is not only part of the West—the culture of ranching is also part of the Forest Service.


I firmly believe that partnerships with ranchers are key to healthy rural ecosystems and healthy rural communities. They are good for grazing, good for people, and good for biodiversity. If there’s one message I want to leave you with today, it’s this: I consider our partnerships more important than anything else in rangeland conservation. That includes the conservation of both working ranches and biodiversity. The rest of my remarks will expand on that.


Four Threats
Our partnerships are predicated on making grassland ecosystems as healthy and productive as possible. Like former Chief Dale Bosworth, I see four major threats to the health and productivity of the lands we jointly manage—fire and fuels, invasive species, loss of open space, and unmanaged outdoor recreation. These are the true concerns we should be focusing on in managing public lands. Not roads or timber. Not livestock grazing.


The scale of these four threats is mind-boggling. Take fire and fuels alone. A few years ago, the Forest Service estimated that almost 400 million acres in all ownerships nationwide are at risk from uncharacteristically severe fires. That’s an area four times the size of California.


A fraction of that is national forest land—some 73 million acres. Acres at risk include degraded grasslands infested with invasive weeds or with woody vegetation such as piñon and juniper. Such areas need to be treated to restore their health and productivity, but that can cost a lot. We estimate the cost of treating just the 73 million acres of national forest land most at risk—and to treat them just once, not counting followup treatments—at somewhere between $32 and $47 billion.


The Forest Service doesn’t have that kind of money. One of our partners recently put it this way: “To make restoration happen, there is not enough money in the whole Treasury.” And that’s true—the federal government has lots of priorities, notably defense and homeland security.


However, our partner didn’t end there. He said, “But there is enough money for restoration in the whole economy.” In other words, what drives us as Americans isn’t government. It’s individual enterprise, whether for private profit or for the public good—whether through businesses or through NGOs. We can tap into that. We can restore healthy landscapes by leveraging the necessary resources through partnerships and through businesses. And that includes keeping working forests and ranches viable and working.


Invasive Species
I mentioned invasive weeds. Again, partnerships are key.


A few years ago, The Nature Conservancy and NatureServe published a book on the risks to biodiversity in the United States. The book contains one study showing that the two greatest threats to native species come from habitat fragmentation and invasive species.


According to the study, invasive species have contributed to the decline of almost half of all imperiled species in the United States. As you well know, much of that threat is on rangeland.


Cheatgrass alone covers tens of millions of acres. Knapweed … leafy spurge … star thistle … saltcedar … the list goes on and on. It has been estimated that invasive weeds have infested 133 million acres in all ownerships, mostly rangelands, and that they have been spreading at the rate of 1.7 million acres per year—an area the size of Delaware. And where invasive weeds take over, the value of forage and browse can drop to zero.


Together with our permittees, the Forest Service is working to control the spread of invasive weeds through cooperative weed management areas and other partnerships. It’s not easy, but we have made progress. For example, in the Flathead Valley of Montana, we succeeded in knocking back tansy ragwort on 25,000 acres through a state/federal/local partnership.


Loss of Open Space
Now let me turn to an even greater threat—loss of open space. I’ll start again from that biodiversity study: Habitat modifications have contributed to the decline of a whopping 85 percent of the imperiled species in the United States. And by far the greatest cause of habitat destruction on rangelands is not livestock grazing. It is land use conversion to development—in other words, loss of open space.


Dr. Richard Knight from Colorado State University has testified on that before Congress. He pointed out that ranching is four centuries old in the West—and that grassland ecosystems evolved under regimes of grazing and browsing that are thousands of years old. Over the past century, we’ve seen some of the rangelands we manage deteriorate, and we need to restore their health and productivity through proper use. Evidence shows that good sound ranching can help restore and maintain healthy, resilient grasslands.


Ranchers know that better than most. The West has about 21,000 ranch families operating about 30,000 federal grazing permits and leases. As you know, these ranch families together own about 107 million acres of private land. That includes some of the most productive land, with the best soils and the most water.


That’s not only the best ranchland, but also the best real estate for development. Too many ranches are being sold; too many ranchettes are going up. We are losing a way of life, a part of our American heritage.


Dr. Knight also points out that the effects on wildlife can be devastating. Instead of the wildlife native to the open range, we are getting urban invasive species like starlings and English sparrows.


The habitat value on adjacent public lands also declines when ranches go under. That’s because private and public lands are interwoven in units that deliver both sustainable livestock grazing and sustainable wildlife habitat. Without both the private lands component … and the public lands component … ranching ceases to be affordable and many native species find themselves out of a home. Again, we lose a part of our heritage.


You know all this, and we do, too. That’s why our partnership is so critical to rangeland conservation.


We want to make sure that our forest and district managers understand this, too, so we’ve incorporated this information into our “Range for Line Officers” course taking place this week in Albuquerque. Dr. Knight as well as a number of permittees are part of the program, helping to teach district rangers and forest supervisors how to address these issues at the local level.


You may also know that the Forest Service is developing a national Open Space Conservation Strategy. The idea is to build on existing resources and programs to keep working ranches and forests in operation. I can’t just dictate the strategy and hope it will work. We have to do it through partnerships with landowners and communities, so we are looking to you and to others for ideas.


We have had more than 9,500 responses so far. Suggestions include reducing paperwork … streamlining regulatory processes … creating common allotments … investing in easements on rural rangelands … and offering 30-year grazing leases. I want you to know that we are considering every idea. We expect to publish a plan in May.


Unmanaged Recreation
Now I’ll turn briefly to unmanaged outdoor recreation. Again, let me start from that biodiversity study: Damage from improperly managed outdoor recreation has contributed to the decline of a quarter of all imperiled species. That might sound surprising, but most recreation takes place in or near relatively fragile areas, such as meadows or riparian corridors.


Some of the most serious problems on national forest land come from the unmanaged use of off-highway vehicles. Most OHV users are responsible, but a small minority are not. The national forests get about 11 to 12 million OHV visits a year, and if just 1 percent of those visits cause some damage, that’s still a whole lot of damage.


We’ve probably all seen signs of it out there on the land. In fact, in 2003 we had more than 14,000 miles of user-created trails on the National Forest System. That costs a lot to repair.


In 2005, we promulgated a travel management rule to better manage OHV use, and we got a lot of user support. The rule doesn’t open or close a single trail or area to OHV use; it just spells out a process for regulating OHV use through travel management plans on each forest.


Those plans are wide open to public participation. I understand that the Public Lands Council just had a joint workshop with the Blue Ribbon Coalition in Denver to discuss how permittees can get involved. We welcome your engagement, and I thank you for it.


Fire Budgets
That brings me back to fire and fuels. In some ways, this is the worst threat we face. But let me just focus on one aspect of the threat that we didn’t fully recognize at first—how it is affecting our budget, because this in turn affects everything the Forest Service does.


In four of the last seven years, our firefighting costs have exceeded a billion dollars. Last year, a new record was set—more than $1.5 billion. Just ten years ago, half a billion dollars was a huge amount to spend on a fire season. Now two or three times that amount is becoming routine.


Yes, we are looking for ways to cut firefighting costs, and we hope to save 5, maybe 10 percent. That’s not enough to make a difference. It still leaves us with billion-dollar fire seasons.


The truth is, fire costs are so high because fire seasons are so severe. Last year, we had the most acres burned since the 1950s. And the scale of the fires we’re seeing—like Biscuit or Hayman or Rodeo-Chediski—has introduced a new word into our vocabulary: megafires. Weather predictions, fuel conditions, and fire complexity indicate that this isn’t going to change soon, so our costs are going to stay high.


Unfortunately, the total Forest Service budget hasn’t kept pace. It has stayed nearly flat in recent years. Ten years ago, 10 to 15 percent of our budget went to fire; now it’s approaching 50 percent. So the pie has stayed the same, but a bigger and bigger piece is going to fire. Naturally, that means that the slices of pie that go to other programs have been getting smaller and smaller.


With that said, I do know how important the range program is. While funding for other programs is going down or even being zeroed out, we’ve managed to keep funding for the range program fairly stable. We are doing that because we want to support our partnerships with permittees. We want to keep their ranches viable and working.


Future Challenges
We will need strong partnerships for the future, because I foresee a very difficult challenge ahead, in addition to the Four Threats: The amount of water we get in the West, particularly in the form of snowpacks, could well go down.


If you get used to something, you tend to think it’s normal, when maybe it really isn’t. Let me give you an example. In the Southwest, there were three distinct shifts in the amount of precipitation during the 20 th century:

  • In the 1910s, there was enough rain to start an entire generation of new trees.

  • But in the 1940s and 50s, it was extremely dry. It was the worst period of drought in 300 years.

  • Then, in the late 70s, 80s, and early 90s, we had another very wet period. It was so wet that tree rings grew faster than they had in the previous thousand years.

  • Since the late 90s, we’ve had what might seem to be unusual drought. But maybe that’s only because we got used to all those wet years after 1976.

Now add to that natural variability what we’re learning about greenhouse gases and climate change. The Forest Service has been studying climate change for 20 years, and we can say two things for sure: Greenhouse gases have already forced changes in temperature; and they will force more. That, in turn, will affect precipitation and snowpacks. We don’t know for sure how much—or exactly where. But it could ultimately affect vast areas of rangeland.


So as we plan rangeland management, let’s keep in mind that conditions could change. We need to keep a sharp watch for changes and be prepared to adapt our management accordingly. For that, we’re going to need strong partnerships in both monitoring and management.


Diablo Trust
Before I close, I’d like to acknowledge one very strong ranching partnership. It’s in northern Arizona , and it’s called the Diablo Trust. It just won our National Rangeland Management Award.


The Diablo Trust manages 426,000 acres of federal, state, and private land on the Flying M and Bar T Bar Ranches southeast of Flagstaff. Both ranches have a long history of improving the land in conjunction with their grazing permits. They apply science-based management techniques, including rest rotation grazing, brush and tree removal, and a system of water catchments and distribution channels.


The Trust believes that the long-term viability of working ranches depends on ecosystem health. It works with the Forest Service and other agencies to enhance watersheds, improve wildlife habitat, restore springs, and protect wetlands and cultural sites. The Trust is also dedicated to furthering rangeland research and educational opportunities for the public. Its motto is “learning from the land and sharing that knowledge so there will always be a West.”


On that note, I’ll end. There will always be a West with partnerships like the Diablo Trust. Partnerships like this are more important than anything else in rangeland conservation. They are good for grazing, good for people, and good for biodiversity. We in the Forest Service are proud to be your partners. Together, we can build a lasting future for the West.


US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013

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