Article 11:

(Essay) Agency Multiple-Use Conflicts

By Edwin P. Pister, Bishop, California

Having conducted my 38-year career within the philosophical and practical insulation of an essentially unilateral California Department of Fish and Game, dichotomies inherent within federal land and resource management departments and their constituent agencies have intrigued and perplexed me. Early on I had naively assumed that such agencies, and the personnel staffing them, were all focused toward a common and righteous goal, and essentially comprised a team directed toward the long-term benefit of the natural resource (and, therefore, the people). I was sadly mistaken! The infighting and budgetary battles within “the system,” largely directed by politically driven economic considerations and pushed by Administration priorities in Washington, D.C., were astounding.

My first significant encounter with bureaucratic dichotomies involved five agencies of the U.S. Department of the Interior in the early days of an effort to save the Devil’s Hole pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis) in a remote portion of the Nevada desert. Devil’s Hole is a disjunct portion of Death Valley National Park, administered by the National Park Service, with the endangered fish primarily a responsibility of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The cause of the endangerment was deep well pumping on federal land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) under lease to private farming interests and encouraged strongly by the Bureau of Reclamation, which was actively involved in drilling exploratory wells to allow more pumping. A fifth agency of Interior, the Geological Survey, was monitoring the venture, with its hydrologists confirming our worst fears that if the pumping were allowed to continue unabated, virtually every spring in the biological wonderland of Ash Meadows (Nye County, Nevada), along with its highly endemic biota, would be severely affected and ultimately destroyed (Deacon and Williams 1991). It was only after a strong threat of legal action that Secretary of the Interior Walter Hickel called together a Washington-level task force representing all involved agencies, and progress was made to save the fish.

Often we are not so fortunate. Devil’s Hole and Ash Meadows were the subject of dramatic events that came and went rather quickly, with the fish ultimately receiving protection by a unanimous decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. Much more cumbersome and damaging to the nation’s biodiversity are chronic problems resulting from multiple-use management on public lands throughout the western U.S., primarily by extractive activities such as timber harvest, mining, livestock grazing, and energy development. A representative situation, which began for me in 1965 and persists to this day, involves the Inyo National Forest and a series of livestock grazing permits within the Golden Trout Wilderness of the southern Sierra Nevada.

During the 1860s, the meadows of the Kern River Plateau, 2500 to 3000 m in elevation and underlain by recently-formed and very fragile granitic soils, were viewed by livestock operators as a source of quick wealth. Eyewitness accounts during the latter part of the nineteenth century told of invasions of hundreds of thousands of sheep and cattle that quickly removed the meadow grasses and began watershed degradation that has never fully healed (King 1935). Attempts by fish and wildlife biologists to effect significant reductions in livestock numbers were countered politically by the livestock operators, supported by a Forest Service range lobby eager to retain a budgetary status quo. When the Golden Trout Wilderness was created under the Endangered American Wilderness Act of 1978, Western congressmen made retention of the grazing leases part of the price to be paid to achieve “wilderness” status. Consequently, a wilderness dedicated to California’s State Fish continually and needlessly suffered severe habitat degradation and riparian damage. Major eroded areas were widespread, riparian growth and undercut banks were virtually non-existent, the best campsites near water had been reduced to dust bins fouled with cow manure, and one could not drink safely from the South Fork Kern River (the evolutionary habitat of the golden trout, Oncorhynchus mykiss aguabonita) without prior filtering or boiling. The habitat change thus effected brought the added ecological problem of favoring an invasion of brown trout (Salmo trutta) which, in the early 1970s, nearly succeeded in extirpating the endemic goldens.

Other rare life forms were similarly affected. A very rare species of sand verbena, (bronia alpine), exists on only a few acres of the Plateau and has been fenced by the Forest Service to protect it from cattle. Only in recent years has some progress been made toward rectifying these problems, utilizing an ecosystem-wide approach involving major adjustments in the cattle operation, fencing of riparian areas, erection of fish barriers, eradication of brown trout, and very costly repair of headcuts and eroded areas (USDA Forest Service 1982a,b). Strong efforts by conservationists to greatly reduce or eliminate grazing have paid great dividends, and riparian areas are now showing remarkable recovery.

Cattle operations on public lands are often subsidized by taxpayers. Costs of supporting such programs are several times greater than revenues derived from lease fees, and monetary returns to the Forest Service are so minimal that many readers could (and would, if permitted) easily pay them out of their own pockets. Resource abuse under multiple-use management is not restricted to livestock operations. Perhaps even more flagrant is energy development in key recreation areas.

The Inyo National Forest constitutes perhaps the most heavily used (and therefore most important) recreation area in the U.S. Located but a half day’s drive for more than 20 million people in metropolitan southern California, the Inyo presently supports more recreational use than Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Glacier national parks combined (Kondolf et al. 1988). Yet, while geothermal features comprise major tourist attractions in Yellowstone, energy projects encouraged by multiple-use management have tapped the Inyo National Forest’s geothermal resources, already very popular with tourists.

Ellis (1975), in a classic paper describing geothermal development in New Zealand, posed this warning: “After major well production, the hot springs of Wairakei Geyser Valley and Broadlands no longer discharge, and what were once tourist attractions are now gray holes in the ground.” When these fears were emphasized to federal decision-makers in the U.S. during the environmental review process, they were almost totally ignored and the plants were built, with accompanying press fanfare from BLM bureaucrats about how multiple-use management was playing a major role in freeing the nation from reliance upon foreign oil! (BLM administers all geothermal leases on federal lands). No mention was made of the probable negative impacts. U.S. Geological Survey hydrologists are now carefully monitoring this controversial “Known Geothermal Resource Area.” Probably nothing is more intransigent than bureaucracy at the policy-making level that takes comfort in the status quo.

At this writing (2005), changes are already noticeable. Geothermal pools are reduced in size, a major trout hatchery operated naturally on geothermally heated water since the 1930s is currently running at reduced capacity because of altered flows, and legal questions are arising. Unfortunately, the complex and variable factors of drought, geothermal heat, and freshwater aquifers make legal “proof” exceedingly difficult. However, successful legal action would likely be but a hollow victory. Once damaged, it is unlikely that the geothermal resource would recover to pre-development conditions within several lifetimes. Considering the limited life expectancy of geothermal projects (30 years at best), even the most loyal “system-dedicated” federal land manager should question whether such development is achieving “the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time.” The underlying (but arguable) utilitarian principle of multiple-use management is a concept that needs to be redefined in light of modern ecological thought and understanding (Callicott 1990).

Similar threats are posed by hydroelectric development on the streams that form the basis and backbone of the roadside recreational resource. All this, of course, is simply because multiple use management is expected, encouraged, and budgeted for on Forest Service and BLM lands, and valuable and irreplaceable resources located thereon are not afforded the protection required by law within the boundaries of a national park. Long-term destruction of publicly owned recreational resources is routinely sanctioned to accommodate private business interests.

What I have pointed out constitutes only the most obvious of problems created by the monster frequently produced by a combination of politics and multiple-use mandates. To livestock and energy development can be added other extractive uses such as mining and timber harvest. Even though local Forest Service and BLM officials may personally oppose particularly flagrant projects, they are required to fulfill congressional mandates that direct their agencies, mandates that may often become highly political and skewed during pre-project evaluation and planning. Value judgments and resultant employee zeal basic to constructive change are seldom manifested and lie far outside of the training (or career aspirations) of most federal land managers. Many are keenly aware of the case involving John Mumma, Regional Forester from Missoula, Montana, who was fired from his job for refusing to implement timber harvest quotas assigned to him because doing so would have required violation of federal law (Wilkinson 1992).

The public can benefit in the long run from multiple-use management, but much too often politics and blind bureaucracy take precedence over the long-term public interest. It is not multiple-use per se that works against the public interest, but questionable management priorities that allow certain favored uses to proceed to the detriment of the overall resource. Williams and Rinne (1992) propose a solution to this long standing problem by suggesting management for biodiversity within a broader, ecosystem management approach, a concept that offers much hope for federal land managers and, more importantly, the publicly owned resource under their stewardship.

Literature Cited

Callicott, J. B. 1990. Standards of conservation: then and now. Conserv. Biol. 4:229–232.

Deacon, J. E. and C. D. Williams. 1991. Ash Meadows and the legacy of the Devils Hole pupfish. In W. L. Minckley and J. E. Deacon, (eds.), Battle Against Extinction: Native Fish Management in the American West, pp. 69–91. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Ellis, A. J. 1975. Geothermal systems and power development. Am. Sci. 63:510–521.

King, C. 1935. Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada. W. W.Norton, New York.

Kondolf, G. M., J. W. Webb, M. J. Sale, and T. Felando. 1988. Basic hydrologic studies for assessing impacts of flow diversions on riparian vegetation: examples from streams of the eastern Sierra Nevada, California, USA. Environ. Manage. 11:757–769.

USDA Forest Service. 1982a. Golden Trout Wilderness management plan, Inyo and Sequoia national forests. USDA Forest Service, San Francisco.

USDA Forest Service. 1982b. Golden trout habitat and wilderness restoration on the Kern Plateau, Inyo National Forest. USDA Forest Service, San Francisco.

Wilkinson, C. F. 1992. Crossing the Next Meridian: Land, Water, and the Future of the West. Island Press, Washington, D.C. and Covelo, CA.

Williams, J. E. and J. N. Rinne. 1992. Biodiversity management on multiple-use federal lands: An opportunity whose time has come. Fisheries 17:4–5.