Eco-Leviathan Rangeland Management: Lock It Up, Burn It Down -- Then Blame the Ranchers

When one says of Don Barnhill that a given challenge confronting him is “not his first rodeo,” the expression is not a wearisome cliché. Rodeo championships figure prominently in Barnhill’s life, which is cluttered with enviable achievements.

As a younger man, he was a private firefighter, which means that he actually worked to contain and defeat fires, rather than maximizing expense while minimizing results, which is the government sector approach. He pursued a degree in archeology and is a self-taught historian of the Oregon Trail who helped organize the first reenactment of the Three Island Crossing on the Snake River. He also helped organize a cowboy poetry association and built roughly a dozen successful businesses.

For decades, Barnhill has raised cattle on the Silver City Allotment in Owyhee County – which means that he has become intimately acquainted with the BLM and the implacable eco-totalitarian activists who are collaborating with the agency to shut down ranching throughout the western states. Among that unsavory cohort, a cynical extortion syndicate called the Western Watersheds Project (WWP) has distinguished itself by its resourceful dishonesty and its unalloyed malice.

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The WWP has been admirably candid in expressing its intention to abolish all cattle and sheep ranching on “public” lands – meaning the millions of acres unlawfully claimed by the Regime in Washington as federal territory.

For decades, Barnhill related to me in a voice heavy with weary amusement, the WWP dispatched eager college students to canvass Owyhee County, and other parts of rural Idaho, in search of a suitably charismatic “endangered species” whose welfare could be invoked as a pretext for banishing ranchers from its “habitat.” Various kinds of “threatened” frogs and flora frustrated that design by perversely thriving in the presence of cattle and the humans who manage them. The WWP eventually settled on the sage grouse, and persuaded a complaisant BLM into designating that unremarkable bird as a “sensitive species.”

Following a long-established script, the WWP rewarded – I do not use that verb ironically – the BLM by filing a lawsuit in 2008 demanding the revocation of grazing permits across 40 million acres throughout Idaho and Nevada. “Forcing” a federal agency to expand its power is roughly as difficult as trying to prompt Donald Trump to say something nice about himself, but appearances must be maintained. Thus the BLM, in the fashion of Byron’s Julia (“I shall ne’er consent,” she sighed, while consenting to her seducer), went through the motions of resisting the WWP’s demands. In the parlance of pro wrestling, this lawsuit, like all others of its kind, was a “work,” not a “shoot.”

Like other foundation-funded eco-jihadist groups, the WWP has “routinely used the federal Equal Access to Justice Act … to recover their attorney fees from these lawsuits,” explains Chris Brong, a 33-year veteran of the BLM, US Forest Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service who is now a Commissioner in Washington’s Skamania County. “Most of the federal judges hearing these cases, with little or no background [in] federal land management laws or policies, have been very sympathetic to the [eco-radical groups” and entirely hostile toward the people who are making a productive living on lands that should be privately owned, rather than being locked up by the Feds without constitutional authority.

Eventually, the WWP’s sage grouse lawsuit wound up before US District Judge Lynn Winmill,whose courtroom is where justice goes to die. Again, that expression is to be treated literally. Fifteen years ago the WWP filed a lawsuit against an elderly Idaho rancher named Verl Jones, claiming that by exercising his water rights to grow hay he had harmed the habitat of the “endangered” bull trout, despite the fact that none was found in the area. Without bothering to ask the WWP to show evidence in support of its claims, Winmill ruled in favor of the WWP, ordered Jones to stop irrigating his fields, and pay the WWP’s legal fees.

Predictably, Jones lost his crop and his ranch. Stolidly indifferent to the plight of the financially ruined 85-year-old man, Winmill allowed the WWP to raid the victim’s remaining assets, which we sold off to play the syndicate’s legal expenses. Jones, who had been hardy and healthy despite his years, succumbed to stress and passed away.

With respect to the WWP’s demand to shut down ranching throughout Idaho and Nevada,Winmill disgorged what he probably considered to be a Solomonic ruling: Rather than cleaving the baby with a sword, he would strangle it incrementally. Thus, the BLM was ordered to undertake a series of time-intensive revisions to the management of grazing allotments that had been purchased by private ranchers – which included new restrictions regarding where, and for how long, they could graze their livestock.

Don Barnhill received notification of these new requirements in the March 8, 2013, letter containing the application for his annual grazing permit.

“These changes were brought forward to the affected permittees for concurrence and formal agreement,” explained Loretta V. Chandler, the Marsing-based BLM apparatchik – who, it should be noted,received a plunder-derived salary of $106,369 when she was deployed to inflict misery on the productive residents of Owyhee County. That figure is roughly three times the median household income in the county.

None of the permit holders had been consulted about the changes demanded by the BLM; each of them was expected to tug on his forelock and obey.

Barnhill, like every other affected rancher, knew that he had no alternative to offering “concurrence and formal agreement” to the WWP-dictated terms. He was determined, however, to make a record of his objections to what was being required of him – if only to absolve himself of the inevitable consequences of allowing vegetation that would have been devoured by cattle to become irresistible tinder for a devastating range fire.

“I agree to follow the grazing management and objectives outlined above,” Barnhill explained in a postscript he inserted into the application. However, he continued, “I sign this document under protest. The terms and conditions imposed by this permit will do nothing to improve the habitat for the Sage Grouse or any other wildlife. These changes … serve only to appease the court and the anti-grazing extremist organization that filed suit. In the long run, these changes will greatly increase the potential for a catastrophic fire that would destroy the range AND the habitat for Sage Grouse for many years to come. If such a fire occurs, the responsibility lies solely with the BLM and the Federal court that forced this action” (emphasis added).

Barnhill presented the revised application, with the check for his annual grazing fee, to Chandler, who rejected it. When Barnhill insisted, pointing out that there were witnesses who had seen him present the application and the required fee, Chandler excused herself and went into her office.

“She was in there for no more than two or three minutes, before coming out and saying, `I just got off the phone with the Solicitor General, and he told me I cannot accept that document,” Barnhill told me, chuckling at the absurdity of the claim.

Barnhill requested that Chandle append a signed statement on his revised application reflecting her transparently false claim – which, astonishingly, she did. In addition to documenting the casual dishonesty of the BLM’s local commissarina, the application made Barnhill’s predictions about a WWP-engineered, and BLM-abetted, range fire part of the legal record.

Last summer, the desiccated foliage that the WWP had lovingly cultivated provided the fuel for the Soda Creek Fire, a conflagration that ravaged the better part of 300,000 acres throughout Owyhee County.

“We have a bunch of people making decisions on wildlife, habitat, grazing and land management, and they have no practical experience,” complained Alan Davis, owner of Graybell Farms – located not that far from the BLM’s Marsing office – after the fire was finally contained. “If you leave this land alone, the Russian thistle is going to take over. When it continues to compound year after year, it stays standing up until something eats it, or [it] burns.”

“If the Bureau of Land Management is not going to take an active management role … then they need to get the heck out of the way and let ranchers or somebody else take care of the land,” Davis summarized.

Having been forbidden to abate the fire risk through grazing, Owyhee County ranchers, acting through their private Rangeland Fire Protection Association, helped extinguish the fire they had warned was coming.

The government is the only human enterprise that profits from its own catastrophic incompetence, which is why the BLM moved to expand its regulatory control over the areas of Owyhee County and eastern Oregon that were devastated by the Soda Creek Fire. The WWP, displaying its irrepressible arrogance and reflexive mendacity, insisted that cattle grazing was “a root cause” of the Soda Creek Fire and other wildfires that tore through mismanaged “public” lands in the West last summer.

“The BLM’s approach to `recovery’ from fires is to require ranchers to `rest’ affected areas for at least five years,” Barnhill explained to me. At the same time, the agency will require ranchers to “suspend” a growing portion of their “animal unit months” – a measurement of the time they are allowed to graze their livestock. This will increase the attrition rate in the industry, remorselessly advancing the WWP’s design of driving ranchers into extinction.