By 1912, “livestock pressures had penetrated to the most remote and timbered and mountainous areas,” (Timeless Heritage: A History of the Forest Service in the Southwest, USFS, 1988).
Ranchers and settlers did not set out to create problems with overgrazing or the chain reaction that helped to create an overgrown, unhealthy forest. Times were different. People wanted to develop a life in a new place. The idea of limiting the number of stock placed on the land was unheard of. When an area became overgrazed, people simply moved their stock somewhere else.
“As a people, our priorities were about extracting resources,” Sanchez-Meador explained.
Gaining control over the intense grazing pressure on the forests and the damage it was causing was a priority for the Forest Service when it was established in 1905.
“When the Forest Service came into being, the most complex problem facing southwest foresters related to grazing rights and range management,” (Timeless Heritage: A History of the Forest Service in the Southwest, USFS, 1988).
Starting in 1906, the outlines of a grazing management and allotment system were emerging; the open range was ended. One of the first regulations put in place gave local landowners grazing priority over corporate ranches of out-of-state owners.
But changing the practices of the ranchers took time, and while overgrazing was reduced, it was not immediately eliminated.
Today, 19,000 cattle graze on the 92 active grazing allotments across the 2 million acres of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. Each allotment is broken into fenced pastures through which stock are rotated.
Far from the days of the Wild West’s open range, grazing on national forests is now intensively managed, not only for the benefit of cattle, but for the benefit of native grasses, wildlife, watershed health and other factors intended to improve the overall forest ecosystem.
Cattle may only spend one month or less in some pastures, and the number of cattle allowed on an allotment is strictly regulated. The overall number of cattle permitted on the national forest has steadily fallen.
“We’re moving toward our desired conditions. I think we’re doing that with our managed grazing,” said Dave Evans, range program manager for Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.
Overgrazing in the forest, combined with other factors, helped to create the conditions that have increased the incidence of catastrophic wildfires. To put the puzzle for a healthy forest back together, forest managers and progressive ranchers are teaming up to look for ways to improve the effectiveness of grazing as a tool for wise forest management.
“There is a good working relationship (with ranchers) ... we’re working together ... looking at the big picture, how can we do this sustainably? I think it’s going really well,” Evans concluded.