Congress vs Nature: Tipton’s forest proposals are really no help at all

Monday, July 23, 2018 5:28 PM
Jerry McBride/Durango Herald06-10-18- Durango- The 416 Fire races down the south side of Hermosa Creek on Sunday afternoon as it burns down towards the creek.

We need a new word to describe that feeling when we’re both cross and bemused. That, at any rate, is how we felt when we read about Rep. Scott Tipton’s latest initiative.

At a congressional hearing last week, Tipton said that if the federal government wants to do a better job of protecting public lands, it should turn them over to ranchers and farmers.

That’s when we were bemused: How would that work?

Tipton was speaking from authority, referring to the devastation caused by the 416 Fire as well as the Spring Creek Fire, both of which are in his district. Those fires will “have some long-term economic impacts,” he said – but if we opened other public lands to farming and grazing now, the ranchers and farmers would reduce fire threats and help protect nature.

The object of farming and ranching isn’t to protect nature, however. It’s to produce crops and meat. We are no longer hunter-gatherers, and we still need to eat, yet it would be foolish to make a virtue of necessity. Nature seems to be better protected when it’s protected from us.

Already, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management permits grazing on tens of millions of acres in the West. What would happen if that were expanded, and if we were to invite farmers and ranchers to take forest lands, parks and former wilderness areas?

One thing it would do, say some Republicans, is relieve Congress of the burden of funding the care of those lands.

Yet the end is hardly fitted to the means. If there is a person in Congress who sincerely believes we must search for ways to lessen the burden of maintaining public lands, the solution is straightforward: Set new spending priorities and see that what’s needed is appropriated. To do less and then complain seems disingenuous. That’s when we got cross.

And should these supposed saviors, these sheep and steer and grains, take over public lands, would it even work?

One expert witness at the hearing, from the Arizona Farm Bureau, said grazing livestock would eat plants, grasses and even trees that provide fuel for fires.

But then the land would be denuded. In other words, it became necessary to destroy the wilderness to save it.

The Arizona Farm Bureau is supposed to advocate for farming. It does not seem to us to be any more expert in the management of public lands than, say, the Western Watershed Project, a conservation group based in Laramie, Wyoming. Also testifying was its executive director, Erik Molvar, who said, “Livestock grazing is like a slow and invisible cancer that is insidiously and inexorably killing native ecosystems over vast areas.”

Molvar’s message was that we’ve already tried what Tipton’s advocating and the result, according to the BLM, was that more than 40 percent of federal land used for livestock grazing failed to meet minimum government standards for rangeland health.

Tipton’s message seems to be, we’ll gladly break and own this.

We said this was his initiative, but it feels more like a gambit or a ploy. What frightens us is that he and some other Republicans are perfectly serious about it.