From above, the chasm certainly looked insurmountable for even the most robust of fish traveling upstream.
Before falling onto rocks several feet below, water passed through a notch cut in a log that was placed across the stream in the Malheur National Forest decades ago by the U.S. Forest Service.
The idea had been to slow down the stream’s current, preventing erosion and creating better habitat for fish and other aquatic creatures. But the “log weir” turned out to have undesirable effects: Not only had it widened the creek against federal policy, but the water passing over the obstacle had deepened the channel below it.
From below, the view was even more alarming. The soil beneath the old log had heavily eroded, creating a deep cavity.
“You see a fish passing that going upstream?” asked Ken Holliday, a rancher whose boots were eye-level with a 6’2” reporter standing at the bottom of the miniature waterfall.
The question was obviously rhetorical. This was a stream that fish were meant to travel up and spawn in, contributing to generation after generation of healthy salmon and steelhead. The notion was laughable. This log weir was one of 16 that had been dug in across the creek.
“The restoration out here’s what’s killing the fish,” said Loren Stout, a fellow rancher who stood along the inadvertent dam.
The U.S. Forest Service now acknowledges the log weirs were a mistake and has set about removing them while trying to recreate better stream conditions. Some of the work involves using heavy machinery within fish habitat. Removing log weirs and inserting woody debris that’s intended to simulate natural stream conditions. Rebuilding stream channels to reconnect them with nearby floodplains.
“It usually looks rough, but by the next year, it’s pretty well recovered,” said Amy Unthank, natural resources and planning staff officer with the agency. “You’re doing a short-term impact for long-term recovery.”
For ranchers such as Holliday and Stout, such assurances often ring hollow. Having witnessed the unintended impacts of the log weirs, they’ve grown skeptical of Forest Service attempts at habitat restoration.
The log weirs are just one example of what these ranchers see as federal mismanagement of public lands: Allowing forests to become overstocked with trees, creating the danger of massive blazes like the Canyon Creek Complex, which destroyed more than 110,000 acres in Grant County in 2015. Allowing trees that are logged to rot on the ground rather than being trucked to the sawmill. Installing riparian fencing that’s meant to keep cattle out of streams, but which can trap debris that eventually blows out into the creek during heavy flows — damaging habitat and changing stream dynamics. Allowing wild horses and hunters to gather near streams that cattle are later blamed for trampling.
“The rules they play by and we have to live by are completely different,” said Holliday, adding that ranchers disproportionately bear the consequences for the health of federally protected fish in the Malheur National Forest.
“We’re a minority. We’re easy to blame,” he said.
The refuge standoff
While they’re vocal about their discontent with federal lands management, Holliday and Stout don’t have much sympathy for the people who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to the south in Harney County.
For many across the country, the standoff in early 2016 came to symbolize the rift between ranchers and the federal government, but Holliday and Stout saw it largely as a publicity stunt by outsiders who were pushing their own agenda.
“Within 15 minutes, it was all about them,” Holliday said. “It went viral. It went nationwide. In the end, it just made us look like a bunch of idiots.”
That Harney County came to represent strife over public lands is perhaps ironic because relations between federal managers and ranchers in the area are often described in cordial terms.
The landscape here is dominated by vast expanses of sagebrush and squat juniper trees, in contrast to the more heavily wooded Grant County to the north.
Generally, through initiatives such as the High Desert Partnership — which fosters collaboration on environmental issues in the area — relations have improved over time, said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., whose congressional district encompasses Eastern Oregon.
“I never was quite sure why that was the target,” he said, noting that distrust between ranchers and the government is worse in Grant County.
“Often, it gets down to individuals and managers rather than public policy,” Walden said.
With about 75 percent of Harney County owned by the federal government, farmers and ranchers basically have no choice but to deal with federal priorities, such as protecting the sage grouse, a bird that was a candidate for Endangered Species Act protection.
However, rancher Tom Sharp of Burns, Ore., said the county’s sparse population and the inevitable proximity between ranchers and federal managers often leads to friendships. Federal employees and ranchers commonly drink beer and go hunting together, he said.
“They’re not faceless bureaucrats out to do us harm,” Sharp said.
Federal staff in Harney County are more likely have family roots there, which has contributed to a more stable culture than elsewhere, said Bill Wilber, an area rancher. In other places, the faces are prone to constant change as people climb the career ladder, but federal postings in Harney County are often long-term.
“They don’t see that as a stepping stone to a new opportunity,” he said.
Ranchers must consult with federal rangeland specialists about matters of mutual concern, such as rotating cattle among grazing allotments, building fences to separate pastures and developing springs for water used by livestock and wildlife. In such matters, appreciating the value of diplomacy is key, said Wilber.
“It’s all attitude and how you present yourself,” he said. “You can’t go in there pissed off at the government because everything’s their fault.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean the picture is entirely rosy in Harney County.
The standoff was inspired by the return to prison of Steve and Dwight Hammond, two local ranchers convicted of arson for setting fire to rangeland. After initially serving shorter prison terms, they were forced to go back behind bars after a federal appeals court ruled they must fulfill mandatory-minimum five-year sentences.
While the Hammonds’ plight may have been the spark for the takeover of the refuge, it soon became clear that occupation leaders embraced an alternate interpretation of the U.S. Constitution — one under which the federal government had no right to permanent ownership of public land, said Sharp.
Those teachings resonated with some locals and reinforced their own distrust of federal authority, which they have since felt freer to express, he said.
“We still have a faction in the community that are different than they were three years ago in their beliefs,” Sharp said. “We’re not over it and we may never be over it.”
Mark Owens, an alfalfa grower and Harney County commissioner, would prefer not to discuss those tense weeks in January 2016. In his view, the majority of farmers and ranchers think of federal employees as partners who share the same desired outcomes.
“We’re moving away from the standoff. It was not good for Harney County,” Owens said.
Public, private collaboration
It’s more important for Owens to look forward at how the federal government’s priorities can coexist with farming and ranching, which generate $89 million in revenues in Harney County. Agriculture is the lifeblood of the county’s economy and represents more than one-third of its jobs.
“You see more and more restrictions on those economic drivers,” Owens said.
The county is developing a comprehensive land use plan that includes its goals for public property, which Owens hopes will serve as a model for other areas in Eastern Oregon.
“They’re completely integrated with our private lands. You can’t look at them in a vacuum,” said Owens, who notes that the county government simply wants a voice at the table, not to take over.
“We’re not looking for local control or local ownership,” he said. “I feel the federal government is the proper manager of public lands.”
The greater sage grouse provides a prime example of how local communities can cooperate with the federal government on a contentious issue — and also how they can come to butt heads about it, anyway.
The bird was long a candidate for being listed as threatened or endangered, which ranchers feared would have the same repercussions for grazing as the spotted owl had for logging: major new restrictions, bordering on complete prohibition.
“Grazing is about all that’s left,” said Jeff Maupin, interim president of the Harney Stockgrowers Association. “I don’t want to see these towns dry up and go away.”
Through collaborative agreements with the federal government, ranchers committed to conservation activities in return for assurances they’d be protected even if the species was listed.
Those voluntary actions played a big role in convincing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service against extending Endangered Species Act protections to the sage grouse, since the agency was reassured the bird’s habitat would be preserved.
“We dodged a bullet in the non-listing decision in 2015,” said Sharp.
Even so, that same year, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management imposed a new resource management plan for the bird, which applies to the vast acreage of public land overseen by the agency in Eastern Oregon and elsewhere in the West.
The plan was seen as overly restrictive and was challenged in court by the Harney Soil and Water Conservation District, a local governing body that negotiates with the federal government over natural resources issues.
The litigation is currently stayed to give the BLM time to revise the plan, which could potentially resolve the lawsuit.
Even if that dispute ends up being settled, the incident points to the precarious position in which federal agencies can find themselves: If they act too aggressively to restrain industry, they can be sued by industry representatives. If they don’t act as aggressively as environmentalists would want, they can be sued by those organizations.
Excessive regulation a ‘fantasy’
In contrast to ranchers whose cattle graze public lands, the Western Watersheds Project nonprofit group thinks the notion of excessive federal grazing regulation is “pure fantasy,” said Erik Molvar, its executive director.
Molvar said federal agencies routinely overstock public lands with livestock, opening the door for invasive weeds and damaging sensitive riparian habitats — areas on or adjacent to stream banks.
Ranchers often display a “lingering frontier mentality” that natural resources are limitless by ignoring these problems and through their antipathy toward wolves, coyotes, cougars, prairie dogs and beavers, which they consider “inconvenient,” he said.
“It illustrates ranching is incompatible with healthy lands and wildlife,” Molvar said.
As for the refuge occupation, the incident “gave public lands ranching a black eye” while the “fire-breathing rhetoric and gun-toting antics” revealed the lack of respect some ranchers have for the rule of law and environmental protection, he said.
“It really exposed the reality there are some among public lands ranchers who don’t want to make an effort whatsoever and just want to take over,” Molvar said.
Molvar said his organization doesn’t want to completely end grazing on public property, but it would want federal managers to close the “credibility gap” by enforcing rangeland health standards and reducing the amount of forage livestock consume.
“Can you find a balance that works for everybody?” he asked. “It’s a testable hypothesis and I want to work toward it.”
Since the mid-20th century, the number of livestock permitted on the Western range has fallen by roughly half, said Bill Dragt, supervisory natural resources specialist with BLM.
“If numbers are the issue, that should have addressed it,” he said.
Grazing practices can’t be painted with a broad brush because each livestock allotment and each stream is different, he said.
Impacts to riparian areas can be managed by monitoring the widths and depths of streams, then adjusting grazing levels accordingly, Dragt said.
When a stream gets too wide — contributing to elevated water temperatures that hurt fish — giving it a break from grazing will allow for recovery, he said. Stubble from grasses along the stream will collect sediment, eventually reforming the stream banks to become deeper and narrower.
As long as rangeland isn’t damaged year after year, it’s proven resilient, Dragt said. “We don’t have to do everything perfect every year.”
It’s true that seeds from medusahead rye and cheatgrass cling to the mud on cattle hooves and the hair on their legs, but these invasive weeds would spread without the help of livestock now that they’re established in the West, Dragt said.
Cattle can actually play a critical role in reclaiming rangeland from these weeds, which have led to more intense and frequent fires in recent decades, said Bob Alverts, a former BLM area manager in Burns and a part-time faculty researcher at the University of Nevada-Reno.
When it isn’t grazed, for example, newly germinated cheatgrass will thrive under the thatched cover of its parents’ generation, he said.
By allowing cattle to graze on the previous crop of cheatgrass, the next generation is subject to full sunlight and doesn’t grow as vigorously because it needs that shade.
Similarly, livestock will graze on medusahead rye in autumn when it becomes more palatable to them, weakening its stronghold and allowing desirable perennial grasses to return, Alverts said.
“Grazing is a management tool that’s Old Testament in terms of history,” he said. “Grazing can be beneficial, it can be harmful and it can be neutral.”