Paul Bonnifield: What does history say about public land?
We are again caught in a loud name-calling debate over public land. What does history say? Can it teach something useful?
When the Civil War ended in 1865, few government regulations controlled the vast public domain. The following 40 years were disastrous. We nearly destroyed the great virgin forest of the Rockies and Pacific Coast. Gone were the forests of the Old Northwest and eastern hardwoods.
Extinction threatened many game animals — buffalo, deer, elk, antelope, mountain sheep. Fish in streams and lakes were dying. Wind and water erosion devastated the land. The nation recognized the crisis and acted in 1892 by establishing forest reserves. In 1905, the U.S. Forest Service began regulating and protecting the great forests.
The 172 million acres of arid or semiarid land beyond the Rockies, often called waste land, remained unregulated. Livestock grazed free and in unlimited numbers. Men fought and died over land they did not own.
Between 1920 and 1935 sheep replaced cattle as the dominant livestock grazing the public land. Hundreds of migratory herds grazed where they pleased.
Joe Livingston was the most aggressive sheepman in Northwest Colorado. Later, court records showed he grazed 9,000 sheep protected by fully armed men. When he trailed through, he took everything with him and trampled the grass to dust. Other sheepmen herded 5,000 sheep or more. Dozens of smaller herds “grubbed” the Sand Wash. The overstocked range nearly died.
Attempts to correct the problem were the Stanfield Grazing Act in 1926, Colorado Migratory Stock Law, Rees-Oldland Act and President Hoover’s effort to turn the problem over to the states. Western states wanted nothing to do with it. All the efforts failed.
Congressman Don B. Colton of Utah in 1933 introduced a grazing bill, but it died in the Senate. The next year Glenwood Springs Congressman Edward Taylor successfully reintroduced the bill, known as the Taylor Grazing Act. Speaking before Congress, Taylor stated the purpose of the bill was to bring peace and home rule to 80 million acres, later increased to 142 million acres, of public land.
Elected local grazing committees consisting of stockmen issued grazing permits, set, collected and spent grazing feed; they established policies and hired and fired government employees. The committees ruled the range.
The Grazing Service was vastly understaffed and funded. In western Colorado in 1936 only three employees attempted to enforce regulations and collect fees. Nationally, 8,000 Civilian Conservation Corps men built fences, developed water holes and dams, built roads, poisoned gophers and coyotes, eradicated weeds and built telephone lines.
Twelve years after passage of the Taylor Grazing Act, the range remained overstocked and in sad condition. Range committees were corrupt and complacent. Many committees stopped functioning. Obviously the law failed to prevent the excesses of grazing. In 1946, Taylor Grazing and the Land Office were combined establishing the Bureau of Land Management.
Over the years the Park Service, Forest Service and BLM reversed the dangerous loss of resources. For example, many wildlife numbers returned to 1880 levels. Plant growth became strong and healthy enabling it to withstand serious droughts, freezes and grazing. Forests became sustainable. Livestock grazing improved range, and cattlemen and sheepmen stopped killing each other.
Finally, annually millions of people now enjoy the big outdoors of the West and fill national coffers.
History’s lesson is clear. Without strong, well-financed national protection and professional administration our public lands are doomed.
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