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Ranch manager Stacy Davies is tackling issues facing the ranching community with a fresh spirit. He says, "I dont see where fighting, kicking and screaming is going to get us a solution we can live with."
Story and photos © 1999 Becky Hatfield-Hyde
Roaring Springs Ranch sprawls west down Steens Mountain into the Catlow Valley in eastern Oregons high desert country. At the helm of this 425,000-acre corporate ranch is a 30-year-old manager. Stacy Davies couldnt be better for the job. He has the know-how to manage livestock, grasses and a large crew. But the main reason Bob Sanders hired him to manage Roaring Springs is his ability to deal creatively and intelligently with the complex environmental issues facing the ranch.
Davies handles these challenges on a variety of levels. He works with agency people, interprets the ranch for visitors, does habitat restoration, evaluates administrative rules, learns from local ranchers and has positive dialogue with reasonable environmentalists. This approach is proving to be a winning one in todays livestock industry.
I interviewed Davies late in the evening, time he usually spends returning phone calls concerning ranch business, reading and studying issues facing cowboys and sheepherders. Hed spent a long day working heifers and the ranchs 250 bulls. Despite the hour, his mind clicked along, information spilling from him as if being plucked from different manila folders in an overstuffed filing cabinet.
"The main impression I want to make on anyone I come in contact
with is that as ranchers, we really are concerned about the environment,
that we care."
On government issues, he says, there are several levels people may work on. For example, laws like the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act require rancher input to the congressional delegation, but many ranchers feel distanced from the lawmakers. The next level?fallout from the laws?is the administrative rules, standards and procedures.
"Theres some work we can do at that level to make sure they are acceptable and we can live with them," Davies says. Education of the general public also is critical. Davies believes ranchers must help people realize that production agriculture, required to feed the nation, can be environmentally sensitive.
"The issues facing us environmentally are the issues the environmentalists
have raised," he says. "I enjoy wildlife, fish, and clean water
as much as anybody."
The Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) and the National Wildlife Federation spearheaded a lawsuit in 1994 that removed all grazing from the wild and scenic Donner and Blitzen River. The last time Roaring Springs ranch was allowed to graze cattle in that area was the spring and summer of 1996. Grazing wont return to that portion of the ranch until an environmental impact statement determines whether grazing is negatively affecting the wild and scenic river.
"Anytime the BLM comes out with an environmental impact statement,"
Davies states, "the enviros are going to sue over it and hold
it up in court."
These same anti-cattle environmental groups were responsible for
petitioning for listing the redband trout as endangered.
"We developed a plan that would maintain and enhance the habitat of the species and protect that species from further degradation while maintaining the economic stability of the ranch," Davies says. Failure to sign the agreement would have left the ranch out of talks and hindered its ability to be part of the solution. The opening paragraph of the conservation agreement tied economics on the ranch and ecology of the fish habitat together equally.
Roaring Springs involvement in the solution process is imperative to combat environmental activist forces which seek to remove grazing from public lands altogether. In a recent fund-raising newsletter, ONDA director Bill Marlett said, "Livestock grazing is responsible for more habitat destruction than all other human activities on public lands combined." He went on to outline the organizations monitoring activity: "Right now, ONDA volunteers are on the ground, monitoring wilderness study areas throughout Oregons high desert. These committed volunteers visit their adopted wilderness sections, evaluate their condition, and identify activities that may threaten the area, such as trespass cattle or off-road vehicle use. With their (and your) help, ONDA is fast compiling the best documentation available on the true status of these desert lands. Such comprehensive data will assure that our call for wilderness status is unassailable despite the oppositions challenges." The scientific validity of data collected by "committed volunteers" is suspect.
On a recent tour with the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife,
Davies was able to point out some practical but critically important
issues about the redband trout. They toured Home Creek, which,
because of limited willow cover, looks like pretty poor fish habitat.
The creek is not fished except by an occasional fly-fisherman,
yet its spilling over with 12- to 14-inch redband trout. "We
stood at lower crossing and talked about the fact that there are
lots of fish," Davies recalls, "and the Fish & Wildlife employees
response was, Well yes, it never gets fished, and thats one
reason the population is so strong."
Thats a basic but important point about a fish thats being considered
for listing as "endangered."
"I dont see where fighting those guys, kicking them off the land
every time they come, screaming at them in meetings is going to
get us a solution we can live with," Davies says. "We should point
out things that wont work, but at the same time help find a solution."
By keeping an open dialogue with biologists and local ranchers, Davies has learned a few things that make the redband trout situation even more interesting.
"You take the fish in Skull Creek and compare them to the fish
in Home Creek and Three-Mile Creek, which topographically are
separated by about five miles. If you took DNA samples and split
the hairs fine enough, youd determine that those fish are three
separate species. The fish biologists say, Are you a lumper or
a splitter? If you want to split a species fine enough, you and
I are different species, and were endangered because of that.
If you want to lump it, were nowhere near extinct or endangered.
Thats the same thing were doing with the fish."
Poking around often turns up some interesting facts that might
be left to gather dust on an old shelf if not brought to the table.
Catlow Valley 10-15,000 years ago was a big lake. The fish were
large and behaved more like salmon. They ran up the creeks on
Steens Mountain to spawn. "As the lake dried up they were isolated
in the creeks and a minor population adapted and survived in those
creeks to the point where today theyre possibly genetically a
But local ranchers have another side to the story. They say the
fish arent different. The ODF&W planted them in the 30s and
40s after the severe drought which may have nearly wiped out
the early fish population. "We have records where Fish & Wildlife
planted rainbow trout in the Donner and Blitzen until 1986, maybe
even more recently than that. We know rainbow and redband inbreed,
so its questionable at that level how different they are."
Roaring Springs, with the help of the Agricultural Research Service, Oregon State University, federal agencies, environmentalists and volunteers, is doing substantial monitoring on the ranch. No potential monitoring tool is ignored. Water temperature studies are being done on creeks. On land where natural fire has been suppressed, burning projects are tested. The ranch builds and installs fish screens. Photo monitoring and green line surveys measure results. Upland transect surveys count species composition from neotropical migrant birds and butterflies to grass and sage grouse.
Roaring Springs buckaroos log hundreds of miles on horseback keeping cattle off sensitive areas. A fence is being considered in a wilderness study area to help manage livestock. The National Riparian Team, headed by Wayne Elmore of the BLM, has evaluated the area and real scientific research will indicate how to do whats best for the habitat while maintaining the ranchs economic viability. Water monitoring is helping to dovetail compliance with the Clean Water Act.
The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is struggling with realistic ways to measure non-point source pollution. The first Water Quality Management Plan developed for the Steens Mountain area was rejected by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA determined that three human-caused sources of pollution in the area?cattle grazing, wild horses and suppression of wildfire?were affecting water quality. Their plan measured bank erosion and shade as a surrogate for water temperature. Eighty percent shade and less than 20 percent active eroding streambank became the new magical numbers.
The community flooded the EPA with comments on its proposal, making it obvious that using a single standard for all of Oregon is unrealistic, and may not address the real problem.
"We have 140 miles of creeks and rivers on this ranch, many of them at climax, and at proper functioning condition," Davies says. "Of these, less than 20 percent of our streams will ever meet that criteria. When I started looking for studies that would tell me how much difference shade makes, most of the studies had been on the wet west side of the Cascade Mountains. Very little work has been done in dry eastern Oregon on water quality and the potential shade of these streams." Talks with the EPA will continue, and Davies plans to be at the table.
Davies willingly accepts visitors on the ranch. "Anyone who wants
to come to the ranch has to come listen to me for about an hour.
We just talk about the issues were facing as ranchers, and that
were aware of the environment and are managing in a way that
will be environmentally conscious. If theyll take the time to
listen to me and visit about the issues, then Ill allow them
to enjoy the private lands that we manage. Many of the hunters,
fishermen, bird-watchers and sightseers dont really know about
the issues we are facing. Ranchers are caring people out here
doing a good job."
Stacy Davies is young. Hes tackling the issues facing the ranching community with a fresh spirit not often seen in an industry that has become defensive.
I asked Davies why anyone would want to be involved in so many nagging and serious issues. His answer inspired my belief in agricultures survival. "If you want to get personal, the reason I do this is to prove that I can. Just too stubborn to give up. The next best answer would be that its a way of life. I want to raise my six boys in a nice, clean environment where theyll gain a work ethic, appreciate animals and learn the laws of reap what you sow."
* * *
Becky Hatfield-Hyde lives in Oregon.