Rangelands are Important
In the United States, including Alaska, there are about 312 million hectares (770 million acres) of rangelands (U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service, 1989a). This large area spans vastly different landforms and climates. Within these landforms are a remarkable diversity of rangeland ecosystems, from the wet grasslands of Florida to the desert shrub ecosystems of Wyoming and from the high mountain meadows of Utah to the desert floor of California. These diverse ecosystems provide a wide array of tangible commodities and values for society.
More than half of the nation's rangelands are privately owned, 43 percent are owned by the federal government, and the remainder are owned by state and local governments (Joyce , as cited by Box ) (Figure 1-1). At least 110 million hectares (272 million acres) of the rangelands present at the time of European settlement in the coterminous United States have been converted from rangelands to croplands, forests, urban areas, industrial sites, highways, and reservoirs (Klopatek et al., 1979). Although some eastern states such as Florida still have large areas of native rangelands, most of the remaining rangelands are found in 17 western states and Alaska.
RANGELAND MANAGEMENT AND USES
The western rangelands are the legendary wide open spaces of American history and mythology. Federal rangelands are managed chiefly by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Federal and nonfederal rangelands include deserts, grasslands, canyons, tundra, mountains, and riparian areas (the grassy or woody areas located on the banks of a natural
watercourse, such as a river, lake, or tidewater). They include wilderness areas and provide habitat for millions of wild animals, plants, and fish, including 74 threatened or endangered species alone on lands administered by BLM (W. H. Radtkey, Bureau of Land Management, personal communication, 1992). They are increasingly used as an immense recreational resource by millions of visitors each year.
Whether publicly or privately owned, rangelands produce tangible products such as forage, wildlife habitat, water, minerals, energy, plant and animal gene pools, recreational opportunities, and some wood products. The chief commercial use of rangelands in the United States—and most of the world—is livestock grazing to produce food, fiber, and draft animals. These are referred to as commodities in this volume. Rangelands also produce intangible products (referred to as values) such as natural beauty, open spaces, and the opportunity for the ecological study of natural ecosystems.
Grazing lands in the United States include rangelands, forests, and pastures. Federal and nonfederal lands produced some 399,567,000 animal-unit months (the amount of forage consumed by an animal unit, usually estimated at 363 kilograms [800 pounds], in 1 month) of forage for beef cattle and sheep in 1985; federal lands produced 7 percent and non-
federal lands produced 93 percent of the total animal-unit months of forage consumed from rangelands, forestlands, and pasturelands (Gee et al., 1992).
Rangeland watersheds are important regulators of the quantity and quality of water in streams, lakes, and aquifers (an aquifer is a water-bearing layer of permeable rock, sand, or gravel beneath the earth's surface). Management of rangeland watersheds to increase the amount of clean water available for use by irrigators, municipalities, and industry and for recreational purposes is increasingly important. Federal and non-federal rangelands provide grazing areas for wild herbivores such as deer, antelope, and elk. Many species of fish and wildlife depend on rangelands and their associated streams and lakes for habitat. During some part of the year, rangeland ecosystems are associated with 84 and 74 percent of the total number of mammalian and avian species, respectively, found in the United States (Flather and Hoekstra, 1989).
Human Interactions on Western U.S. Rangelands
Soon after explorers discovered the coastlines of the Americas in 1540, they traveled inland, migrating north from Mexico and, later, west from New England. The growth of the population and commerce in what is now the western United States occurred over what can be viewed as three periods of human interaction with the land:
Each change in the perceived value of the range brought with it changing ecological concerns.
In 1540, the Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado introduced the first domestic livestock to the open range of what is now the southwestern United States: 500 cattle, 5,000 sheep, and 1,000 horses (Wallace, 1936). As Spanish missionaries established and fostered outposts in the 1700s in areas that are now Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, they brought an estimated 50,000 sheep and 20,000 cattle north from Mexico (Wallace, 1936).
The Mexican government liberally granted rangelands to people interested in establishing ranches in what is now the southwestern United States. By 1860, the number of cattle in California reached an estimated 3.5 million head (Burcham, 1961), and in Texas, the herd population soared from 330,000 in 1850 to some 4 million in 1860 (Paul, 1988). Access
Rangelands offer many recreational opportunities, including hiking, horseback riding, picnicking, skiing, fishing, hunting, snowmobiling, and driving of off-road vehicles. The demand for rangelands for recreational purposes is growing; for example, the demand for horseback riding is expected to double by the year 2040 (Cordell, 1989). The fees charged for the recreational use of privately owned rangelands are growing sources of revenue for rangeland owners (Box, 1990). The value placed on the recreational opportunities and open space provided by rangelands is expected to increase with increased levels of urbanization (Joyce, 1989).
CONCERN ABOUT THE STATE OF U.S. RANGELANDS
Conditions on U.S. rangelands have long been a source of concern. The Europeans who brought sheep and cattle to the rangelands of the western United States overestimated the ability of the land to support
to railroads in Sedalia, Missouri, and Abilene, Kansas, encouraged the beef boom.
Severe flooding in 1862 in California followed by 2 years of intense drought reduced the herds by between 200,000 and 1 million head (Bur-chain, 1961). California ranchers turned their attention to sheep, which they hoped would be better suited to the weather conditions of western rangelands, but this caused a debate among people who used rangelands, with cattle ranchers contending that sheep depleted all palatable grasses. Weather problems such as drought, blizzards, and storms plagued the rest of the southwestern range in the late 1880s, devastating cattle production. Prices for cattle in Chicago stockyards dropped from more than $9 per hundredweight in 1882 to $1 in 1887 (Wallace, 1936).
The boom-and-bust period for the beef industry coincided with an increase in the human population west of the Mississippi River. This introduced a transition for rangelands as the land was quickly converted to cropland. In the 30 years between 1870 and 1900, farmers brought more new land into cultivation—174 million hectares (430 million acres)—than had been brought into cultivation in the 250 years since the settlement of the Jamestown colony in Virginia (Athearn, 1986).
The Homestead Acts, which began in 1862, encouraged settlers to cross the Great Plains, taking with them farming methods better suited to east-em soils. Farmers plowed over natural short grasses to plant wheat and other grains and cereals. A few years of favorable weather and good yields bolstered enthusiasm for crop production, and farmers seemed to
livestock. They also lacked the experience and knowledge needed to use properly the arid lands of the western United States.
The number of livestock on U.S. rangelands expanded in the latter half of the nineteenth century; at the same time that many areas in the western United States suffered severe droughts. The combination of too many livestock, improper management practices, and drought accelerated the rate of soil erosion; depleted the amount of forage; and altered the species composition, density, and production of rangeland vegetation over extensive areas of the western United States.
Federal Management of U.S. Rangelands
This early crisis on U.S. rangelands led to efforts to bring large areas of western rangelands under the jurisdiction of the federal government, beginning with the creation of the forest reserves in 1891 and the USFS in
pay little attention to the fact that, in many areas, the fragile topsoil was shallow and was threatened by wind and water erosion (Athearn, 1986).
In 1879, John Wesley Powell wrote the "Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States." He warned that low levels of rainfall made traditional large-scale farming impractical beyond the hundredth meridian, which roughly divides the nation through the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. He proposed two alternatives: small irrigated farms or large grazing farms with small sections that could be irrigated (Powell, 1879). But his report was largely ignored by policymakers who did not understand the arid western landscape.
In California, more farmers turned from cattle to crops, and by 1889, California was second only to Minnesota in the production of wheat (Paul, 1988). Planting of as much as 4,000 hectares (10,000 acres) per farm became more common as the work was eased by combines hauled by steam-powered tractors. Low property, values and minimal taxes on unimproved land encouraged farmers to plow and plant.
Finally, by the early 1930s the Great Plains had suffered through a decade of drought and people began to realize that they needed to manage and conserve the land better. This was the third period of human interaction on the rangeland, which was a time of reassessment of the land and its resources and debates over its use.
In 1931, during a national conference on land use in Chicago, Secretary of Agriculture Arthur M. Hyde spoke of the need to use better land management practices. Three years later, the Taylor Grazing Act established the federal administration of about 32 million hectares (80 million acres) of rangeland. President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs, such
1905 and culminating in the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. The Grazing Service, later to become BLM, was created in 1934 to manage these new federal lands, and the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) of USDA was created in 1935 to provide technical range management assistance to private landowners.
Changing perceptions of which values of rangeland ecosystems are most important have stimulated new debates over whether these public lands should be used to produce livestock, to support wildlife, to improve water quality, or for recreational purposes and how much of each of these uses was appropriate. A wave of environmental legislation—including the Multiple Use and Sustained Yield Act in 1960, the Resources Planning Act of 1974, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, and the Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act of 1977—was enacted at least in part in response to concern about the state of U.S. rangelands.
as the Civilian Conservation Crops, brought more-sophisticated large-scale water management and irrigation practices to the western United States.
The Great Plains Drought Committee was formed in 1936, the same year that the secretary of USDA wrote to the Senate, highlighting the need to revitalize the rangelands while acknowledging changing demands for the land, including watershed and wildlife protection and the provision of recreational space.
The national parks were established, although they, too, frequently inspired debate, as with the creation of the Jackson Hole National Monument in Wyoming. The federal government wanted to buy up land for the monument, but local landowners complained that the project would unfairly deprive them of rangeland. As a compromise, the government reduced the size of the proposed project but bought more land to add to nearby Grand Teton National Park (Athearn, 1986).
During the post-World War II year, the tourism industry flourished in the western United States because of the favorable, dry climate and scenic attractions. Through the persistence of conservationists, who fought to keep much of the western land for public use, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act of 1964. Since passage of the Wilderness Act, millions of hectares have been set aside as wilderness areas. Today, many of those lands, as well as most other federal rangelands, are used for a variety of recreational enterprises, such as hiking, camping, horseback riding, and skiing, and they are still grazed by a restricted number of livestock.
Present State of Rangelands
Although most observers agree that rangeland degradation was widespread on overstocked and drought-plagued rangelands at the turn of the century; the current conditions on U.S. rangelands are a matter of sharp debate.
ASSESSMENTS OF RANGELANDS
Some reports have concluded that widespread historical degradation of rangelands has been halted and that rangelands, for the most part, have been recovering in the latter half of this century. For example, Box (1990) applied his professional judgment to data on trend (a change in a certain characteristic of rangeland over time) in range condition (SCS) and ecological status (USFS and BLM) ratings; he concluded that widespread degradation had been halted by the 1930s and that the trend in range condition (SCS) has generally been upward since that time. (See Chapter 3 for discussions of range condition and ecological status.)
In its most recent report on the state of the public rangelands, BLM (U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, 1990) echoed the conclusions of Box (1990). It also reported that the current trend is stable or improving on more than 87 percent of public rangelands.
The Society for Range Management (1989) reviewed data provided by BLM, USFS, and SCS. It reported an improvement on 15 percent, a decline on 14 percent, and no apparent trend on 64 percent of the lands administered by BLM. Comparable data for lands administered by USFS were 43, 14, and 43 percent, respectively. The respective values for non-federal rangelands were 16, 14, and 70 percent.
Other reports have described the continuing problems of rangeland degradation. For example, the National Resources Inventory, which is conducted once every 5 years by SCS, reported that in 1987 about 20 million hectares (49 million acres) of nonfederal rangelands (12 percent) were eroding at greater than the soil loss tolerance level and that over 11 million hectares (27 million acres) were eroding at twice the soil loss tolerance level (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Soil Conservation Service, 1989b) (Figure 1-2). (The soil loss tolerance level is the estimated maximum annual rate of erosion that can be tolerated without damaging soil productivity.) These data included rangelands eroding because of water-caused sheet and rill erosion only. (Sheet erosion is erosion caused by water running off unprotected soil in thin sheets; and rill erosion is that caused by water running off unprotected soil in small channels called rills.) Other forms of water erosion, such as gullying, combined with wind erosion, undoubtedly damage millions of acres of rangelands as
well. No comparable data are available for federal rangelands, but there is no reason to assume that erosion is less severe on federal lands.
Environmental impact statements prepared by BLM and USFS reported rangeland degradation from soil erosion (U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service, 1990b; U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, 1987b), soil compaction (U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, 1987c), the spread of introduced weed species (U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, 1985b), reduced water quality and wildlife habitat (U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service, 1991a; U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, 1983a,b), and degradation of riparian habitat (U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, 1983a, 1985c).
The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) issued two reports in 1988. The first one (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1988b) was based on a survey of BLM and USFS range managers. It reported that 19 percent of the BLM and USFS grazing allotments may be threatened with further degradation because of overstocking and that the condition of 8 percent of the grazing allotments was actually declining. The second report (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1988a), which was based on available data for riparian areas, reported that although some riparian areas were successfully restored, many thousands of kilometers of riparian habitat were in
need of treatment. Chaney and colleagues (1990), in a report prepared for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that ''extensive field observations in the late 1980s suggest riparian areas throughout much of the west were in the worst condition in history'' (Chaney et al., 1990:5).
DEFICIENCIES OF ASSESSMENTS
All of these reports, regardless of their conclusions, have been criticized by various interests, and none are based on comprehensive inventories of rangelands. The Society for Range Management (1989), for example, cautioned that the data available for their analysis were collected in the 1960s and 1970s and that the agencies did not have current data to support their professional opinion that the rangelands under their jurisdiction has improved during the past 20 years. Similarly, Box (1990) cautioned that trend data were not available for 12 percent of the national forests and 26 percent of rangelands managed by BLM. The utility of the models used to estimate erosion on rangelands in the National Resources Inventory has been questioned (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Soil Conservation Service, 1989a), data from environmental impact statements do not represent all rangelands, and the results reported by GAO are based on surveys of professional opinion rather than surveys of rangelands.
All national assessments suffer from the lack of current, comprehensive, and statistically representative data obtained in the field. No data collected using the same methods over time or using a sampling design that enables aggregation of the data at the national level are available for assessing both federal and nonfederal rangelands. Many reports depend on the opinion and judgment of both field personnel and authors rather than on current data. The reports cited above attempted to combine these data into a national-level assessment of rangelands, but the results have been inconclusive.
UTILITY OF CURRENT METHODS AND DATA
The debate is further clouded by disagreement within the scientific community over the utility of the current range condition (SCS), ecological status (USFS and BLM), and apparent trend assessment methods (see Chapter 3). The methods developed in the early 1900s were designed to assess the suitability of rangelands for grazing. New methods were adopted after 1950, but some ecologists now challenge the validity of those methods for assessing rangelands. Even where representative surveys of rangelands have been conducted using current range condition (SCS) or ecological status (USFS and BLM) ratings, such as in the National Resources Inventory, the utility of the results as measures of the status of rangelands is now in question.
This disagreement and uncertainty concerning the state of the U.S. rangelands have become inextricably bound to the debate over the proper use and management of federal rangelands administered by BLM, USFS, and other agencies of the federal government. Public concern over the effect of livestock grazing on federal rangelands has intensified (Royte, 1990; Shaw, 1990; Wuerthner, 1991), leading to a variety of current efforts to restrict livestock grazing on federal lands.
The fact that available data do not allow investigators to reach definitive conclusions on the relative proportions of rangelands that are improving or degrading or on the relative rates of improvement or degradation seriously impedes efforts to resolve the debate over proper use and management of the nation's federal and nonfederal rangelands. The data that have been available for assessing the status of rangelands are obtained by many different methods and from many different sources. Different experts who look at the same data have interpreted them differently, confusing both the public and rangeland professionals.
URGENT NEED FOR NATIONAL ASSESSMENTS
There is an urgent need to develop the methods and data collection systems needed to determine whether rangelands are improving or degrading. The importance of the commodities and values provided by
rangelands, the history of rangeland degradation, evidence of current degradation, and the inadequate data on current rangeland conditions suggest that it is unwise to neglect the status of the nation's rangelands. All attempts at national-level assessments reveal that degradation, particularly that from wind and water erosion, occurs on a significant portion of the nation's rangelands. The area of rangelands estimated to be deteriorating varies depending on the data that are used and how they are interpreted. The fact that it is impossible, with current methods and with current data, to determine whether federal and nonfederal rangelands are improving or degrading is itself a cause for concern.
Given the ecological and economic importance of U.S. rangelands, it is important that their capacity to satisfy values and produce commodities be conserved. Overgrazing by domestic or wild animals, inappropriate recreational uses, disease and insect outbreaks, drought, and other human-reduced or naturally occurring stresses can and do degrade rangelands. Serious degradation can result in the irreversible loss of the capacity of rangelands to produce commodities and satisfy values and the loss of some or all options for using and managing rangelands in the future.
Federal and nonfederal rangelands produce a diversity of tangible commodities and satisfy many societal values that are important to the U.S. economy and the well-being of U.S. citizens. Overgrazing, harmful recreational uses, drought, and other human-induced or natural events have led to serious rangeland degradation in the past. Although the available data show that some rangelands continue to deteriorate, the full extent and the causes of that degradation are the subjects of debate. Given the importance of rangelands and the potential for serious degradation from both mismanagement and natural events, it is essential that the responsible agencies marshal the resources needed to develop and implement the data collection systems needed to provide policymakers, ranchers, environmentalists, and the general public with more definitive information on the state of federal and nonfederal rangelands.