History and Management of Public Rangelands in the United States: A Case Study from New Mexico

By Alexandra Heller
2015, Vol. 7 No. 04 | pg. 1/3 |


Public rangelands are typically managed by a multiple-use policy that seeks to balance economic, conservation, and recreation objectives. The often semi-arid and arid public rangelands of the American west are both historically and contemporarily a stage for controversy, where stakeholders representing these objectives clash. Livestock grazing on public lands is a situation that requires an understanding of historical, economic, cultural, and ecological contexts. This article summarizes each of these aspects of public rangelands and introduces the viewpoints of multiple interests to illustrate the complexity of public rangeland management and the necessity of a holistic approach.

More than fifty percent of the land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a federal agency tasked with managing public land resources, is grazed by domestic livestock owned by private ranchers. Ranchers lease the rights to forage, a valuable resource of the western United States where the land governed by the BLM is predominately located. The presence of privately owned livestock on public land stretches back to the early 1900s and the beginning of the American ranching industry. For the last century this has been a controversial practice fraught with high stakes. Legacies intersect at this crossroads of public and private: the iconic open range, free roaming cattle, and the cowboy whose subsistence hinges on the herd; the charismatic wildlife species that struggle to maintain integrity as their habitat is fragmented; the great grasslands that once occupied the west; and an increasingly drought-stricken landscape, suffering under the stress of resource extraction.

Despite extensive management efforts by government agencies, many of the country's extensive rangelands are severely disturbed landscapes, suffering from a long history of overgrazing, drought and desertification, and an increasingly changing climate.

Passionate stakeholders with varying intentions promote different land management paradigms that are seemingly in opposition. Economic, environmental, and cultural factors come into play when the federal government undertakes the management of public rangeland resources for the benefit of multiple stakeholders. These varying influences on the management of public rangelands are examined below.

A Snapshot of Northern New Mexico’s Rangelands

In early March, the South Chiflo management area is primarily sagebrush and bare ground. One can see where the grasses have grown and are dormant for the winter. They are growing in rings, gray and sparse, with patches of exposed soil in the center of the rings. This is a sign of overgrazing and of drought. Both are active stresses on this ecosystem, and manifest themselves in similar ways.

The South Chiflo Rangelands

South Chiflo Rangelands

South Chiflo Rangelands 2

South Chiflo Rangelands 3

Photos: Cole Caswell

James Harmon, the range technician for the Taos BLM office, manages this grazing allotment and three-hundred and fifty others in Northern New Mexico. He is responsible for assessing the ecological health of these areas and enforcing grazing regulations based on his findings. When I contacted him to inquire into how these lands were managed, he invited me to go into the field with him for a day. We drove across the Rio Grande river on the John Dunne bridge, and up into the grazing lands between Taos, New Mexico and southern Colorado. He asked me to imagine what the South Chiflo management area would look like when these plains were grasslands, as they were many decades ago before a long period of unregulated grazing. It is a difficult act of imagination.

In the 1930s, 30,000 sheep grazed in and around the grasslands of the South Chiflo management area (J. Harmon, personal communication, March 13th, 2014). Now the plains are dusky with sagebrush. Stands of juniper and pinon trees crosshatch the land. The bare patches of ground, where there is no sagebrush and the grasses are bunched and dormant, is where the BLM is working to restore native grasses and forbs. Sagebrush is resilient beneath the stresses of drought and overgrazing that this grazing allotment, and much of the west, faces. Management of these areas as productive rangelands often means removing the competition that the sagebrush presents to other plant species by means of mechanical landscaping, an application of herbicides, or prescribed burns.

On one side of the road, the BLM has disked. Disking is a process that involves churning the sagebrush under and the soil up, allowing native grass and herb seeds that have been dormant to sprout and take root. The other side of the road has been shaved, a process which involves shaving the sagebrush down at the trunk to give the native grass and shrub species a chance to reclaim dominance within these areas. Some areas on both sides of the road were seeded with a native grass seed mix: 25% western wheat, 20% blue grama, 20% indian ricegrass, 15% needle-and-thread, and 20 % utah milk vetch, side oats grama, threeawn, and other native plant species (J. Harmon, personal communication, March 13th, 2014). This is a nutritious blend of forage for both domesticated livestock and native wildlife species, including mule deer and elk, who graze in this area.

This particular seed blend balances warm and cool season species so that edible forage is available for most of the year. The mule deer are browsers and feed on a different set of vegetation than do livestock, with some overlap. Elk are grazers, and are in direct competition with livestock for forage. Usually large numbers of elk winter here on these rangelands and return to the mountains for the summer; however, the South Chiflo management area has a resident herd of elk these days (J. Harmon, personal communication, March 13th, 2014). Since the BLM installed a well in this area to provide water for livestock, the elk see no reason to leave during the summer.

This area is home to a wide range of native wildlife species and vegetation. It is also provides a valuable natural resource for ranchers living in the area: forage. It is not the open range anymore, but public lands are still grazed by livestock ranchers throughout the western United States. The BLM manages 245 million acres of public lands; 155 million acres are active rangelands (Gorey 2013). The BLM manages public lands according to a multiple-use policy that incorporates commercial activities, recreation, and conservation objectives (Gorey 2013). This means that on a grazing allotment such as the South Chiflo management area, stakeholders representing each of these three land uses must share the resources that the land provides.

Despite extensive management efforts by government agencies such as the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service, many of the country's extensive rangelands are severely disturbed landscapes, suffering from a long history of overgrazing, current drought and desertification, and an increasingly changing climate. In light of the many stakeholders and wildlife species whose livelihoods depend on these areas, how does the BLM define and maintain the health of these public lands? To understand the complexity that public rangelands are fraught with, one must understand historical and current public land policy, the livestock industry, and the ecology of the lands.

History of Public Rangelands

Since the beginning of the ranching industry in the United States, ranchers have grazed their livestock on public lands. During the early 1800s, as new Americans moved into newly named western territories, an agency was formed to rapidly dispose of public lands (Westward Expansion: The Public Domain to the Creation of the BLM, 1812 – 1946, 2012). The government prompted this agency, the General Land Office, to transfer public lands into private ownership, transform wilderness areas into agriculturally productive areas, and generate income for the government. In 1916, the Stock Raising Homesteading Act was passed, allowing 640 acre parcels of land to be purchased by those with the intent of raising livestock, quadrupling the original homestead parcel size (“Westward Expansion: The Public Domain to the Creation of the BLM, 1812 – 1946,” 2012).

Because of the arid and semi-arid climates that are prominent in the west, the personal properties of many individuals were not big enough to support farming agriculture or homesteading without irrigation; thus, settlers turned to ranching, and ranchers turned their livestock onto the vast, undeveloped grasslands of the west. This was the so-called “cattle kingdom” that dominated the open range (Merrill 2002, p. 16). With the addition of the forage found on this landscape, ranchers could make a living by rotating herds of livestock animals through the property they owned and the open range. The cattle kingdom grew as the native bison population was demolished; with the disappearance of these native ungulates, Native Americans and the growing population of settlers became increasingly dependent on beef as a source of meat (Merrill 2002).

Ranching was a profitable business, but not without conflict. Competition existed between ranchers who sought to graze their livestock on the same land. With no laws regulating who could graze where, ranchers “attempted to make this public property their own through a variety of methods, such as intimidation, illegal fencing, and controlling key water sources” (Merrill 2002, p. 17). It wasn't until the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 (TGA) that the use of public rangelands began to be regulated. The unregulated grazing that had occurred for decades on the open range, in addition to creating social conflict, had caused extensive damage to soil, plants, streams, and springs. The TGA was enacted with a dual purpose of protecting rangelands and stabilizing the livestock industry (Anderson 2000). The TGA authorized the Secretary of the Interior to establish grazing districts, and to issue permits to individual ranchers or businesses to graze livestock within those districts.

The Grazing Division, later the U.S. Grazing Service and eventually the BLM, was responsible for managing rangelands (“Westward Expansion: The Public Domain to the Creation of the BLM, 1812 – 1946,” 2012). Under TGA, “preference was to be given to those who needed the permit to make use of the private land or water rights they already owned or leased” (Anderson 2000, para. 13), as it was acknowledged that there would likely continue to be competition for these coveted grazing districts. The adjudication process developed in the 1960s, known as Federal Range Code, maintained preference for ranchers who needed a permit to make use of owned or leased land and water rights.

In 1976, the first major amendments to the TGA came about as a result of the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act (FLPMA). FLPMA stated that public lands should be managed

“'under principles of multiple use and sustained yield' in such a way as to protect 'scientific, scenic, historical, ecological, environmental, air and atmospheric, water resource, and archaeological values'” (Anderson 2000, para. 20).

This was the beginning of the multiple-use policy. Two years later, still unsatisfied with the condition of public rangelands and under pressure from conservationists, Congress enacted the Public Rangelands Improvement Act (PRIA). Both FLPMA and PRIA modified Federal Range Code. The BLM stopped managing grazing as a practice and instead began to manage specific rangeland resources “such as riparian areas, threatened and endangered species, sensitive plant species, and cultural or historical objects” (Gorey 2013, para. 6).

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