Public Grazing: A Service to Our Forests?

In the Methow Valley of north-central Washington, controversy over public-lands grazing burns as brightly as anywhere, and it’s up to US Forest Service District Biologist John Rohrer to keep the air clear of smoke. Visitors and newcomers to the Valley from Seattle are appalled by eroded watersheds, trampled meadows and incongruous fences they perceive to be spoiling their National Forest. Cattle, Rohrer admits, also pose a serious hindrance to wolf recovery. However, he recognizes that “ranching is a way of life, a vocation,” and that ranchers “aren’t getting rich, they’re just getting by.” Rohrer explains that grazing permits, by keeping ranches in business, prevent or postpone ranchland from succumbing to environmentally-devastating subdivision and development. Fourth-generation Methow rancher, Vic Stokes, offers further perspective, emphasizing that the annual cycle of raising and moving cattle fosters “a lot of sense of place, and…of purpose,” and especially an ethic of “hard work.” Each US Forest Service grazing permit allows 800 cow/calf pairs to inhabit an allotment from June to September. The Forest Service is invested in mitigating the erosion caused by cattle, but removal of cattle from public lands seems unlikely: permits that not only allow, but mandate grazing of eligible land have been integral to the Forest Service’s production-oriented mission since the agency’s establishment in 1912. A century later, an increasingly conservation-focused society questions whether grazing on public land still stands up to Gifford Pinchot’s founding ideal of “the greatest good for the greatest number.”