In the old days, if a rancher needed more range land for his cattle, public land managers were more than willing to keep the customer happy. After all, since ranchers were the only ones paying to use the public lands, it didn't really matter much what anybody else thought.
"No one ever really complained before," said Jerry Goodman, district manager for the Richfield District of the Bureau of Land Management. "It was just the way business was done."The "business" Goodman refers to is deliberate removal of pinyon and juniper forests primarily to enhance forage for livestock but also to improve the watershed, prevent erosion and enhance wildlife.
But the business of "vegetative manipulation" may be putting on a new face as the BLM looks at less-controversial ways of removing the pinyon and juniper and perhaps avoiding public outrage (see related story).The most common technique employed over the years has been "chaining" - a process by which bulldozers drag hug chains between them, uprooting entire stands of pinyon and juniper trees. The area is then reseeded with grasses and shrubs for livestock and wildlife forage.
But a lot of mistakes have been made with chainings, Goodman admits.
Areas were chained where few of the forage plant seeds germinated. In some cases, the wrong kinds of grasses and shrubs were planted. In other areas, huge parcels were chained, removing important wildlife habitat. In others, steep hillsides were chained, creating a severe erosion problem.
"Mistakes were made because we didn't have the proper information on soil types and plants," Goodman said. "We were not in tune with the concept of multiple use, nor was there any real consideration of the aesthetics of chainings."
Even with all the mistakes, Goodman said, chaining wasn't controversial. And it continues to be non-controversial in other Western states with large pinyon-juniper forests.
But it became controversial in Utah last summer when the BLM began a chaining project near Moab. Some environmentalists in the Moab area protested the destruction of trees and accused the BLM of kowtowing to the demands of cattle ranchers.
Television crews were on hand to film the protests and the subsequent chainings, prompting citizens in other areas of the state to question the BLM's chaining policy statewide. Even children began writing letters of protest to the governor and to the BLM, demanding officials "save the trees."
"We realize how bad a job we did educating the public about chaining and the tremendous progress we have made in soil conservation," said Bert Hart, external affairs officer for the Richfield District. "They (the public) saw bulldozers pulling trees out by their roots, but they never saw the positive effects of chaining, they never saw the water quality and erosion problems these trees posed."
They also never realized most chainings are paid for, in part, by the rancher and sometimes by the Division of Wildlife Resources and State Lands, and that such "vegetative manipulation" benefits far more than cattle ranchers, he said.
The BLM maintains it has learned, through trial and error, how to do chainings right. They no longer chain square blocks of land, but do it in mosaic patterns, leaving patches of trees in which wildlife can hide. And they avoid chainings next to highways where the public is concerned about aesthetics.
"It's been an evolution," said Dave Henderson, Warm Springs Resource Area manager. "In the '50s and '60s, it was done for cows. But now there are so many other considerations. If the public would come see what it looks like after the grasses start coming in, I'm convinced they would be supportive."
And Henderson emphasizes the public needs to keep a historical perspective on pinyon and juniper forests. Traditionally, lightning-caused fires have kept the forests in check, allowing grasses to grow in burned areas. But with man eliminating fire as a natural control, the forests have encroached upon traditional grasslands, gradually eliminating forage for wildlife and livestock and causing other problems.
Because of the voracious appetite of pinyon and juniper trees for water, the ground beneath and around the trees is virtually barren. "If you've ever walked through a juniper forest, you'll notice the ground is bare. There's nothing at all growing on it," said Miles "Cap" Ferry, commissioner for the Utah Department of Agriculture.
While land managers will now be looking more at using controlled fires, firewood gathering and chemical means to improve the forage, chaining remains the most popular and effective method among soil conservationists, Ferry said.