Public Land Grazing Was Increased During Ongoing Megadrought

Government agencies have quietly distributed large subsidies to public land ranchers in the Desert Southwest during the region’s long-term ongoing megadrought.

The recent history of livestock management on Arizona’s Tonto National Forest is one example. The Tonto includes about 2,964,308 acres of public land, and despite being called a forest, about 27% of it, or 791,284 acres, is hot and rugged Sonoran Desert. From 2000 to 2002, toward the beginning of the still ongoing drought in the Southwest, the Tonto ordered its grazing permittees to remove almost all of their cattle from the Forest. (By 2002 Arizona had experienced two of the driest winters on record, back-to-back, and six of the previous seven winters had brought below-normal precipitation.) The common sense decision to remove the cattle helped protect the Forest’s publicly owned natural resources, which include the watersheds of five large surface water reservoirs that help supply the City of Phoenix.

Most of the Tonto is in Gila County, so the removals affected many members of the Gila County Cattle Growers Association (GCCGA), although the drought would have forced them to drastically reduce their herds anyway. The reduction in cattle numbers barely caused a blip in the county’s overall economy. But the GCCGA took advantage of its disproportionate political influence to help persuade Congress to add a provision to the 2002 Farm Bill that made it possible for public land ranchers to receive financial assistance from the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). This resulted in the Tonto National Forest EQIP Pilot Project, which issued the first EQIP contracts to public land ranchers in the country in 2004. The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) awarded more than $1.5 million in EQIP assistance to Tonto ranchers that year. The ranchers used much of it to help build new livestock watering sites on the Forest. Since then, EQIP assistance for public land ranchers in Arizona, and across the West, has grown to many millions of dollars annually.

The State of Arizona also provided a new financial assistance program for public land ranchers during that time. In 2003 the Arizona Legislature created the Livestock & Crop Conservation Grant Program (LCCGP) which gave priority to grant requests submitted by public land ranchers. One of the program’s intended purposes, in fact, was to provide the ranchers with the matching funds they needed in order to qualify for EQIP assistance.

Subsequently, the Tonto National Forest signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in 2004 with the Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association and Gila County Cattle Growers Association that outlined an agreed upon “Restocking Process.” In other words, the removal of cattle would be the “last resort” of the Forest’s drought strategy for livestock management. Since then, millions of dollars in government financial assistance has been awarded to Tonto ranchers to help them build ranching infrastructure on public land, such as fences and livestock waters. (The MOU may have been a violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act because it was a secret agreement between the Forest and the rancher groups.)

The Salt River 6 Grazing Allotments

There are many grazing allotments on the Tonto where government assistance has recently helped increase authorized livestock numbers. The stories of the six grazing grazing allotments located along the Salt River upstream from Theodore Roosevelt Lake are good examples. They are the Chrysotile, Dagger, Haystack Butte, Hicks-Pikes Peak, Poison Springs/Sierra Ancha, and Sedow allotments – the Salt River 6.

Roosevelt Lake
View of Theodore Roosevelt Lake from Tonto National Monument, Arizona (Jeff Burgess)

The tables below show the government assistance that was distributed since 2002 to the ranches which grazed these six allotments. This type of data is difficult to collect, even though it’s public information, and there was likely more, so these are at least the amounts that were awarded.

Government Assistance Program Key
ALLBAWPFEQIPHPCHeritage FundLCCGPLFPLRPPFWPWQIG
AALB - Arizona Livestock Loss Board, Arizona Livestock Loss Board (federal/state)
AWPF - Arizona Water Protection Fund, AWPF Commission (state)
EQIP - Environmental Quality Incentives Program, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (federal)
The EQIP program absorbed the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) after 2014.
HPC - Habitat Partnership Committee, Arizona Game & Fish Commission (state)
Arizona Heritage Fund, Arizona Game & Fish Commission (state)
LCCGP - Livestock & Crop Conservation Program, Arizona Department of Agriculture (state)
Note: Open Space Reserve Grants became LCCGP Grants after 2002.
LFP - Livestock Forage Disaster Program, USDA’s Farm Service Agency (federal)
LRP - Landowner Relations Program, Arizona Game & Fish Department (state)
PFWP - Partners for Fish & Wildlife Program, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (federal)
WQIG - Water Quality Improvement Grant, Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (federal/state)
Note: These grants were previously called Section 319 nonpoint source (NPS) water pollution prevention grants.
Griffin Cattle RanchM Bar K RanchO Bar O RanchRafter Cross RanchRafter P RanchRockin Four Ranch
Griffin Cattle Ranch (Griffin Cattle Ranch LLC) - Sedow Allotment
YEARSPROGRAMAMOUNTPROJECT NAME
2002OSR #58*$33,729
2005LCCGP #05-44$100,000Livestock Water and Fencing
2006-2021EQIP$329,099
2007LCCGP #07-34$100,000Livestock Water and Fencing
2009LCCGP #09-45$75,000Restoration-Conservation-Resource Enhancement
2011LCCGP #11-26$77,332Fencing, Grassland Restoration, Livestock Water
2012-2021LFP$444,271
$1,159,431TOTAL 2002 - 2021
* Open Space Reserve (OSR) grants became LCCGP grants in 2005.
The current allotment management plan was completed in 1979.
M Bar K Ranch (M Bar K Cattle Co., LLC) - Chrysotile Allotment
YEARSPROGRAMAMOUNTPROJECT NAME
2002OSR #13*$77,350
2007-2010EQIP$242,973
2007LCCGP #07-71$125,000Livestock Water and Fencing
2009LCCGP #09-85$100,000Livestock Water and Fencing
2011LCCGP #11-54$125,000Livestock Water and Erosion Control
2012-2016LFP$126,362
2021LFP$26,344
$823,029TOTAL 2002 - 2021
* This assistance was received by the ranch’s previous owner, Howard J. “Pinky” Norris. Open Space Reserve (OSR) grants became LCCGP grants in 2005.
The current allotment management plan (AMP) was completed in 1984.
O Bar O Ranch (Rugged Edge Cattle Co., LLC) - Dagger Allotment
YEARSPROGRAMAMOUNTPROJECT NAME
2011-2014LFP*$35,609
2011LCCGP #11-69*$125,000Open Space Conservation Project
2012-2016EQIP*$264,976
2019-2021LFP$45,764
$471,349TOTAL 2011 - 2021
* This assistance was received by the ranch's previous owners, John & Sarah Sowers. The ranch was sold to Joshua J. Roundy in 2015 and he began managing it in 2016.
Grazing was reauthorized on the allotment in 2010 after many years of nonuse, and new pastures were added to the allotment in 2015. The current allotment management plan (AMP) was completed in 1981, when the allotment had a different configuration.
Rafter Cross Ranch (J Bar B Cattle Co. LLP) - Campaign & Poison Springs Allotments (Tonto NF), Wildcat Allotment (Apache-Sitgreaves NF)
YEARSPROGRAMAMOUNTPROJECT NAME
1992BOR$73,9801992 AMP for Campaign allotment
2006Heritage Fund$10,000Campaign Creek Riparian Fence
2006 - 2012EQIP$207,575Campaign allotment $133,096
Wildcat allotment $74,479
2011 - 2015LFP$198,402Campaign allotment $142,264
Wildcat allotment $56,138
$489,957TOTAL 1992-2015
The current boundaries of the Poison Springs allotment were set in 2017. The current allotment management plan (AMP) for the Poison Springs allotment was completed in 1987, when the allotment had a very different configuration. The Campaign allotment’s current AMP was authorized in 2011. The previous 1992 AMP was funded by a grant from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation as part of a mitigation plan for the local wildlife habitat flooded after the height of Theodore Roosevelt Dam was increased.
Rafter P Ranch (Rafter P Ranch LLC) - Haystack Butte Allotment
YEARSPROGRAMAMOUNTPROJECT NAME
2007-2011EQIP*$301,637
2011LCCGP #11-67*$100,000Allotment Improvements
2011LFP*$8,214
2018LRP$12,000Rafter P Ranch Dirt Tank Improvements
2018-2021LFP$89,903
2019HPC #18-605$50,000Livestock Water
2020-2021EQIP$116,927
$678,681TOTAL 2007 - 2021
* This assistance was received by the ranch's previous owner Joshua D. Smart.
The current allotment management plan was completed in 1982.
Rockin Four Ranch (Rockin Four Ranch LLC) - Hicks-Pikes Peak Allotment
YEARSPROGRAMAMOUNTPROJECT NAME
2008 - 2019EQIP$231,089 
2015LFP$122,105 
$353,194TOTAL 2008-2019
The current allotment management plan was completed in 1992.

The following table shows how this government assistance, which totaled more than $3.5 million, helped to increase the number of authorized cattle on these allotments as they were restocked during the continuing drought. The overall increase from the initial restockings to the 2020 authorized stockings was about 416%.

Grazing Allotment Initial ReauthorizationsSubsequent Authorizations2020 Authorizations
Chrysotile2006: 65 cattle448 cattle
Dagger2010: 37 cattle
Pastures added to allotment in 2015.
2016: 178 cattle196 cattle
Haystack Butte2003: 47 cattle2016: 275 cattle275 cattle
Hicks-Pikes Peak2004: 130 cattle2008: 330 cattle290 cows
Poison Springs/Sierra Ancha2017: 125 cows
Allotment had different boundaries prior to 2017.
125 cattle
Sedow2004: 15 horses2016: 725 cows408 cattle
Totals419 head1,742 head

The new livestock management plans facilitated by these funds were implemented with little use of the NEPA public planning process, even though the existing allotment management plans (AMPs) were obsolete, so the public had little idea what was going on. The one exception was when the Forest conducted a NEPA analysis and issued a decision in 2005 to implement a new AMP for the Hicks-Pikes Peak allotment. But that decision was reversed in response to an appeal filed by Forest Guardians. (The Tonto announced the start of the Salt River Allotments Vegetative Management project in 2011, but a final decision was never issued.)

Meanwhile, range “improvement” projects on the Salt River 6 allotments were approved on a piecemeal basis. The table below shows the administrative history of the allotments since 2002, and illustrates that almost all of the significant livestock management decisions were made using NEPA categorical exclusions, grazing permit modifications and “trial” cattle number increases, or through annual operating instructions. The only environmental assessments (EAs) completed were for the 2012 Miner’s Camp Pipeline & Storm Canyon Fence and the 2018 Sedow & Haystack Butte Allotments Range Improvements projects.

Dagger AllotmentChrysotile AllotmentHaystack Butte AllotmentHicks-Pikes Peak AllotmentPoison Springs AllotmentSedow Allotment
History Of Dagger Allotment Since 2002
NEPA Analysis ConductedNEPA Categorical Exclusion or No Public Notice
2009 Grazing Permit
Grazing authorized to resume after several years of nonuse
2010 Annual Operating Insructions (AOI)
2011 Devore Pipeline Extension
2015 Grazing Permit Modification
Three pastures from the adjacent Poison Springs allotment were transferred to the Dagger allotment
2016 Annual Operating Instructions (AOI)
2017 Annual Operating Instructions (AOI)
2020 Annual Operating Instructions (AOI)
History Of Poison Springs Allotment Since 2002
NEPA Analysis ConductedNEPA Categorical Exclusion or No Public Notice
2009 Grazing Permit
  • Grazing authorized to resume after several years of nonuse
  • Three of the allotment's pastures were transferred to the adjacent Dagger allotment
  • Pastures south of Salt River placed in nonuse until completion of NEPA
2010 Annual Operating Instructions (AOI)
2016 Memorandum of Understanding
2017 Grazing Permit Modification
Pastures north of Salt River removed to create new Black Mesa Allotment.
2017 Annual Operating Instructions (AOI)
2017 Klondyke Water System
2020 Annual Operating Instructions
2020 Poison Springs Structural Range Improvements

Thus, enormous public investments that were made in these ranches with minimal public notice. In fact, it appears the Forest was trying minimize the general public’s involvement because a 2019 Habitat Partnership Committee grant application for a controversial livestock water project on the Tonto’s Cartwright grazing allotment revealed that the Forest held a private “emergency drought CE (categorical exclusion) meeting for water projects” with its grazing permittees.

The Government Money Just Keeps Flowing

In 2008 Congress responded to growing requests from Western ranchers for drought assistance by creating the Livestock Forage Disaster Program (LFP). The LFP is administered by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) and provides financial assistance to ranchers when the U.S. Drought Monitor declares that a region is drought stricken, even if the area is desert. Ranchers who cannot graze their public land allotments as the result of wildfires are also eligible for LFP payments.

The continuing drought has resulted in millions of dollars in LFP payments to Arizona ranchers, and many other ranchers across the West. Sometimes these ranchers have received LFP assistance during the same years they received EQIP. For example, the tables above that list the government assistance which benefited the Salt River 6 ranches show that four of them received EQIP and LFP during the same years.

And there’s little doubt that the Tonto’s strategy for managing livestock grazing during the ongoing drought will continue to emphasize the use of government subsidies. On May 3, 2018, Forest Supervisor Neil Bosworth sent a letter to permittees about the Forest’s drought strategy and promised that, “my staff will focus efforts to approve critical range infrastructure needed to utilize available forage.” And a subsequent email to a permittee from the Tonto’s Globe Ranger District on May 14 showed that he meant it.

Moreover, in September 2020 the Arizona Silver Belt newspaper in Globe reported on a meeting of the Gila County Cattle Growers Association wherein the ranchers discussed the problems they were dealing with because of the wildfires that had burned about 288,000 acres of land in county during 2020 – most of it on the Tonto. (Bigger and more frequent wildfires in the Southwest are another product of drought and climate change.) It was reported that the Forest’s Range Program Manager Chandler Mundy told them that the Tonto had requested  $543,000 in Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) funds to acquire ranching infrastructure materials like fencing and pipeline, to help replace those that had burned. A representative from the NRCS was also in attendance and encouraged the ranchers to apply for more EQIP assistance. And a representative from the FSA encouraged them to apply for more LFP, along with the Emergency Conservation Program, and the Livestock Indemnity Program.

How Much Will Taxpayers Have To Pay?

The under-the-radar livestock management decisions that facilitated the investment of millions in government assistance for the Salt River 6 ranches wasn’t a unique occurence – it’s been the recent norm on public lands in the Southwest. Many other ranches on the Tonto also received large amounts of government assistance during the ongoing drought with little public notice. During this time the Forest even authorized grazing to resume on some areas that hadn’t been grazed in many years, including the Bar X Ranch , Cartwright Ranch , and Circle Bar Ranch .

The negative impact these increased cattle numbers inflicted upon local wildlife habitat during the drought can be partially understood by comparing cattle and wildlife animal unit months (AUMs). An AUM estimates how much forage a grazing animal eats in a month. For example, a cow grazing for a month equals 1.0 AUM, while an elk is only 0.6 AUM, a mule deer only 0.20 AUM, and a white-tailed deer only 0.15 AUM. In other words, one cow has the same impact as five mule deer.

And this situation certainly wasn’t unique to the Tonto National Forest. It was the same on public land all across Arizona and much of the West. It’s exacerbated by the fact that there are no needs tests for these government assistance programs. Even wealthy ranchers are eligible for them. For example, the table below shows that Bar T Bar Ranch, Inc., which holds the permit for the Coconino National Forest’s Bar T Bar grazing allotment, benefited from a lot of government assistance while in 2012 it was able to purchase another ranch, the Black Rock Ranch, for $1,228,920. (It included the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Flying Butte allotment and Arizona state grazing lease #05-000305.)

Bar T Bar Ranch (Bar T Bar Ranch, Inc.) - Bar T Bar (FS) and Flying Butte (BLM) Allotments, State Leases #05-001339, #05-000305
YEARSPROGRAMAMOUNTPROJECT NAME
2005LRP*$285,000Juniper Removal
2005LCCGP #05-81$150,000Grassland Restoration & Livestock Water
2005-2011WHIP$36,937
2005-2021EQIP$790,011
2006-2013WHIP*$176,981
2007-2008EQIP*$449,995
2011-2021LFP$1,085,897
2011HPC #10-203$24,000Prescribed Burns To Kill Juniper Trees
2012-2018PFWP$200,661
2014HPC #13-204$32,000Quayle Hill Grassland Restoration (Cut Down Juniper Trees.)
2015HPC #14-214$5,349Drinker Replacements
2017HPC #16-211$31,920Quayle Hill Grassland Restoration (Cut Down Juniper Trees.)
$3,268,688TOTAL 2005 - 2021

* This was shared with the Flying M Ranch , the other member of the Diablo Trust.
WHIP was absorbed by the EQIP program after 2013.

It’s obvious that, unless the situation changes, U.S. taxpayers will be on the hook for continually increasing amounts of government assistance to help public land ranchers as the megadrought in the Southwest likely continues and intensifies due to climate change. In fact, some scientists are no longer calling it a drought, but permanent aridification. The situation is especially egregious in a state like Arizona, which is mostly desert that’s inherently unsuited for livestock grazing.

The absurdity of the federal government’s current drought strategy for managing livestock grazing on public lands in the arid West is highlighted by the fact that public ranchers are simultaneously receiving EQIP to maintain grazing and LFP because it’s not sustainable. It’s time for Congress to stop throwing good money after bad by reducing subsidies for public land ranchers. They can start by raising the public land grazing fee to the market rate, as the federal fee was only $1.35 per cow per month in 2020. Furthermore, they should allocate money to a fund that would be used to fairly compensate ranchers who are willing to voluntarily relinquish their grazing permits so their allotments can be permanently retired. And in the meantime, federal land managers should stop initiating grazing on unused pastures and grazing allotments.

Updates

On January 21, 2021, the Tonto National Forest Supervisor issued a letter to the Forest’s grazing permittees wherein he acknowledged the growing severity of the drought, but promised them, “I commit to not requiring removal of all cattle from the Tonto Forest as a forest-wide decision.”

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