“We’re going to start playing by our own rules, because theirs don’t work, and they don’t know how to follow them.”
So says Yvette Herrell, state representative from Alamogordo, New Mexico, in defense of her radical fringe movement to privatize public lands via transferring them to the states. Even in written form, for all their muscle and victorious tone, these words scarcely veil Herrell’s frustration at the deplorable imperfection of the federal government and its management of the citizens’ estate. I have a lot of empathy for people who are frustrated. There is sincerity in their anguish, a belief that they’ve been betrayed in spite of their most heroic efforts. They want everything to work out for the best. Shouldn’t that be enough?
It should, but then again, who would believe such nonsense? Wanting everything to work out doesn’t mean squat. Actually working to make it happen does, which is why, when it comes to public land use and management, there is plenty of blame to go around for the current state of affairs.
A case in point is a stream restoration project I’ve been involved with in one way or another for several years. The creek is located on the Carson National Forest, the project entailing various treatments to reverse the innocent and yet significant ecological devastation from about a century of mining, logging, grazing, and overharvest of fish and wildlife.
There have been challenges to be sure, not the least of which being the magnitude of the destruction being addressed. In the heyday, our project area was essentially shaved to the nub and then given an enema, and the habitat lost to erosion is heartbreaking still. Add the federal NEPA and permitting process, which has been its bureaucratic headache self, sometimes to the point of seeming like the Forest Service has no interest in the project being successful. Finally, as phases of the project have been completed – yielding almost immediate positive results in sediment reduction and stream channel function – a grazing leaseholder has repeatedly allowed his stock to stomp through treatment areas and reverse all the gains.
It’s appropriate here to address Herrell’s comment that the government’s rules don’t work and that it doesn’t know how to follow them. In the case described above, it’s really impossible to know if the government rules work or not, precisely because A) the rules are not clear, and B) even if they were, cattlegrowers don’t seem to know how to follow them any better than the government does.
Which makes the other part of Herrell’s statement – that government haters are going to start playing by their own rules – beg for closer examination as well. The New Mexican landscape, though of breathtaking beauty, bears the deepening scars of laissez faire management in the past and today. The degraded condition of our land is, at a minimum, plausible evidence that playing by their own rules is all that Herrell and her ilk have ever done. If it were not, we might talk seriously about raising user fees without unfairly burdening grazers, miners, loggers, hunters and anglers, and yes, hikers, bikers and birdwatchers. But we never talk seriously; methinks there’s an age-old reason for it.
To end on an up note, it makes me proud that the Forest Service, the grazing leaseholder, and the stream restorers have persevered through their mistakes and have learned how to make the stream project a broader success. The leaseholder has committed to resting pastures near stream treatments, and the restoration crews and Forest Service are trying to fence in pastures and establish upland water troughs for cattle. Even private landowners have contributed financial resources in keeping with their own deep stewardship values. Everyone tries. Everyone wins.
Beginning as an effort to mitigate erosion and stream damage, the project’s emphasis has expanded to include range health and cutthroat trout recovery. Fattening cows and making fishermen and elk happier, it’s called multiple use.
Look for other public lands collaboration success stories in future posts.