National monument cuts grazing; WWP sues for more

Jul 19, 2013

Located just a short drive south of the sprawling Phoenix metroplex, the Sonoran Desert National Monument is advertised as a haven for desert hikers and sightseers looking to admire the region’s stately saguaro cactus forests or glimpse southern Arizona’s abundant wildlife.

But the lands now within the monument boundaries have also long supported domestic cattle on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) grazing allotments, a fact which has ruffled environmental activists who believe the monument should be free of livestock.

In response to a September 2012 planning decision that livestock should persist on the protected landscape—albeit in smaller numbers—environmental activist groups Western Watersheds Project (WWP) and the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club have filed suit against BLM, claiming that the agency failed to account for damage the cattle are causing to plants, soils and habitat, in its environmental analysis. The groups are requesting that the livestock-related portions of the planning decision be vacated, and that BLM be sent back to the drawing board to reevaluate the impact of cows on the landscape.

“For over a decade, the BLM ignored, altered or simply redefined data that would have forced them to discontinue livestock grazing on the monument,” WWP stated in a May press release which called the BLM’s environmental impact statement “a deeply flawed, pseudoscientific analysis.”

“BLM arbitrarily lowered the land health objectives and ignored years of data and the conclusions of other researchers regarding the negative impacts livestock have on monument lands,” WWP insisted.

Created in 2001 during the twilight days of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the 490,000-acre Sonoran Desert National Monument has taken a hefty bite out of available public grazing lands in the region since presidential proclamation conjured it into existence. From the monument’s inception, some 156,000 acres of grazing on allotments south of Interstate 8 were barred from renewal; grazing effectively ended on that portion of the monument in 2009 when the permits expired. The recently approved monument plan slashed an additional 95,300 acres from allotments north of the interstate, reducing Animal Unit Months (AUMs) on three allotments and closing one entirely. Following the decision, only 157,000 acres remain in active grazing on the monument.

BLM’s decision to cut, but not eliminate, grazing is setting up a potential legal tug-o-war between the grazing industry—which opposes the grazing reductions—and the environmental groups, who would like to see all cattle removed. Patrick Bray, executive vice president of the Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association, said that the organization is sizing up its legal options, and is considering filing its own suit against BLM’s decision.

“They have completely removed yet another tool from the tool bag to help manage the land,” said Bray of grazing, noting that grazing can be an important land management treatment and fire preventative. “We’re always concerned when they take AUMs off the table.”

Bray noted that the Arizona Cattle Growers, ironically, were in the same boat as WWP in that both parties felt that the monument planning decision needed to be revisited. “At the end of the day, we really want the first initial outcome that the enviros want, which is to reopen the decision-making process,” said Bray. “We just want different outcomes once they open it.”

The legal skirmish over grazing on the monument is yet another cautionary tale for ranchers about potential reductions to grazing that national monuments can visit upon public lands permittees. National monuments, typically created by presidential proclamation through the 1906 Antiquities Act, are required to be managed for the protection of “objects of historic and scientific interest,” and only allow other activities if they are compatible with the preservation mission. This caused little trouble historically, since many monuments were small, and most were given over to the National Parks Service for management. However, the Clinton administration ushered in a new era in which landscape-scale national monuments were designated on multiple use BLM lands and remained under BLM management. This raised the question of whether— and to what extent—traditional multiple uses like grazing and mining would continue on the monument.

The conflict between monuments’ preservation mission and existing multiple uses on BLM land has proven to be tempting feeding ground for environmental litigators, who claim that historic natural resource-based industries damage monument values and therefore must be abolished.

Legislation has been introduced in Congress that would require congressional approval and state support of new monuments, reining in the president’s authority to unilaterally create monuments by decree. Last month, nine western senators also sent President Obama a strongly-worded letter, urging him to ignore requests from political supporters who, according to the letter, are inappropriately petitioning the president to designate new monuments for political—not historical—motives.

Meanwhile, the grazing industry continues to struggle with Clinton’s monumental legacy. For Bray, hanging on to grazing permits on these protected lands has presented a special set of challenges, and comes with a near guarantee of litigation. With so much red tape to negotiate, grazing on monuments is clearly an uphill battle.

“It’s just another level of bureaucracy,” says Bray. — Andy Rieber, at, WLJ Correspondent