U.S. Forest Service Hostile
100 Years Ago, and Today

  by Steve Miller
  copyright 1996, Electric Nevada

Over 100 years ago, when what are now called national forests were first formed, the very first thing federal land managers did was attack the range rights of Westerners.
In its first official policy statement on April 14, 1894, the Department of Agriculture announced a total curtailment of grazing on the forest reserves (later to be named 'national forests').
Prohibited was the "driving, feeding, grazing, pasturing, or herding of cattle, sheep, or other livestock" on the forest lands, as were lumbering and mining and all forms of "trespass."
Whatever property rights the western states thought they had on their resource lands were, for the next several years, summarily denied them, notes rancher-author Wayne Hage.
Hage, who began studying the history of the range-rights conflict that has raged over the West for the last 130 years when he himself began running into problems with Forest Service administrators in Nevada, eventually, in 1989, wrote a book on the topic.
Titled Storm Over Rangelands, the study relies on earlier work by sectionalist historians to chronicle the post-Civil War domination of the American West and South by a newly powerful bloc of Northeast financiers and industrialists.
Wielding great financial and political clout, the alliance used its dominion over national government to not only impose exploitive tariffs and railroad fees on the people of the West and South, but also to try to block grazing on the western lands, says Hage.
"Grazing was the single use that could block eastern dominance" over western resources, he says. That was because, under the prior appropriation doctrine upheld in 1891 by the Supreme Court (Buford V. Houtz), it was through grazing that ranchers could establish private property rights on the public domain land of the West.
It was at that point that Eastern capitalists stumbled upon a strange charismatic genius who, because of his personal history in Scotland, had an antipathy for grazing even exceeding theirs.
John Muir, who would later cofound the Sierra Club, had spent years in the Yosemite area as sheepherder, guide and sawmill operator.
"His memory of large sheep corporations disenfranchising the small sheep owners of their grazing lands in his native Scotland left him with little sympathy for large corporate interests, especially if they were sheep graziers," wrote Hage.
Add to that Muir's ability to "speak and write in glowing poetic phrases about the wonders of the natural world," and the Scottish immigrant "was an ideal candidate to help promote anti-grazing rhetoric."
After just two articles in Robert Underwood Johnson's Century magazine, celebrating Yosemite and promoting it for a park, Muir's usefulness in drowning out the objections of people who held prior appropriation rights in the West had been demonstrated.
"A sidelight of the Yosemite campaign has been lost to those who regard Muir as a folk hero," writes Hage. "He was allied with and in the pay of railroad magnate Edward H. Harriman" who "obtained a monopoly for the railroad route to Yosemite."
Harriman, of New York, and of the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads, was one of the preeminent capitalists of the day.
"He provided Muir with extensive prepaid scientific expeditions, free rail fare throughout the nation and in 1902, a free round-the-world trip," says Hage.
"Harriman and his northern core political interests kept Muir in their service by generous red carpet treatment. Muir's obvious and sometimes embarrassing eccentricities were explained away as the mark of genius."
After 1902, however, when the newly instituted forest reserves had escaped repeal for 11 years, says Hage, Muir and the Sierra Club were of decreasing importance to the bloc of Northeast financiers and industrialists.
Western rage over the forest reserves and the denial of rancher range rights had forced Gifford Pinchot, federal forests chief from 1898 to 1910, to spend most of his federal career trying to save the reserves from repeal.
Pinchot, jettisoning Muir, succeeding in saving the reserves by defusing the potentially disastrous opposition of western ranchers. He granted grazing permits based on pre-existing rancher range rights and started a policy of employing westerners to oversee the new grazing program on the forest reserves.
But the long-term alliance between Northeast financial interests and the Muir/Sierra
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Club/preservationist side of the conservation movement, still exists today, says Hage.
When the more radical environmental movement began to arise in the 1960s and '70s, again pursuing the elimination of private rights on western rangelands, much of the major money behind the movement again came from old allies in America's Northeast, firms and foundations derived from the same 19th Century robber-baron interests that had fought western range rights in the 1890-1910 period.
Tony Lesperance, an animal and range science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno from 1959 to 1984, says the newer, hostile-to-grazing environmentalist attitudes didn't start reviving in the Forest Service until the Nixon and Carter presidencies, and then it was specifically fostered from on high in the federal government.
"I've been to many, many seminars, with many, many Forest Service people and BLM people, and I know that the [new] philosophy was [only] starting to surface in the early 70s," he says.
"And it still was not reaching the ground level. The people out here regulating livestock grazing, were having to deal with some of this, as it was coming down from an administrative standpoint, but basically things were still pretty good."
"But you began to see that erosion from the top down, and then all of a sudden, you began to see a change in hiring policy."
The new "range cons," or range conservationists -- the beginning position for new Forest Service employees -- were suddenly, said Lesperance, much more often individuals without land-grant institution training.
"If you were trained in a land-grant institution for range management, you had a very basic concept of livestock grazing," he said.
But high-level Forest Service administrators had decided that they could circumvent that traditional orientation by seeking people without that training.
The new attitude, he said, was, "we won't hire people that have that kind of training; we'll go to the liberal arts colleges and hire people with a basic biology training," who "receive an entirely different academic approach to this whole thing.
"You started to see this approach coming out in the 70s, you started to see these people hired in the late 70s, early 80s, and you have a preponderance of them today."
The new Forest Service, both in Nevada and in Washington, is predominantly made of individuals highly influenced by the environmentalist movement -- a movement often quite explicit about its desire to destroy ranching in the West.
Hage noted in his 1989 book the enviromentalist goal for the rangelands was reflected in a slogan current at that time: "Cattle Free in '93."
And he notes that National Wildlife Federation lawyer and Oregon Fish & Game official Roy Elicker taught a seminar at a 1991 environmentalist law conference on how ruin ranchers.
"What everyone likes is the big victory," said Elicker. "You load them cattle trucks for the last time and they go driving off into the sunset and they never come back.
Elicker went on to explain that "you can win a lot more victories" by "making it so expensive in his [the rancher's] operation and making so many changes for him to continue to run his cattle on the public lands that he goes broke, he can't do it..."
Hage also points out that the modern Forest Service works hand-in-glove with such enviromentalist organizations.
During a discovery phase of Hage's takings suit against the Forest Service, Hage's attorney found records of intimate communications between the Forest Service District Ranger Eric Grider, who canceled livestock grazing on Hage's allotment, and National Wildlife Federation lawyer Roy Elicker. Grider also sent to Elicker a copy of the letter canceling the Hage permit.
Discovery also turned up a letter from one Waive Staiger, a Forest Service employee working under Grider, informing CIGNA Corp., the holder of the mortgage on Hage's Pine Creek Ranch, that Hage's grazing permit had been canceled.
Also found was a letter from James C. Overbay, the Forest Service's deputy chief, telling forest rangers to support environmental group goals, because the groups would then help support larger Forest Service budgets.
Next week: The Forest Service Bids for State of Nevada Water

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