Roundtable Forges Sustainable Rangeland Criteria

By Leland Rucker

FORT COLLINS, Colorado, May 23, 2003 (ENS) - American rangelands are in decline, and federal land management agencies have been under the gun for their lack of consistent, standardized national indicators for reporting the conservation status of rangelands. Today, after two years of consultation, a rangeland stakeholders' roundtable released the first set of criteria and indicators that can be used to assess how degraded these lands really are. grazing

Steers graze on Eastern gamagrass, a native bunchgrass found from Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle to the East coast. (Photo courtesy USDA)
The Sustainable Rangelands Roundtable, a partnership of stakeholders involved in rangeland issues, includes scientists, economists, ecologists, government officials, environmental advocates and cattle industry leaders. The "First Approximation Report on Criteria and Indicators for Sustainable Rangelands," released today on the roundtable website, is intended to help better determine the present condition of American rangelands and plan for their future.

"It's essentially for stakeholders, whether agencies or landowners and other non government organizations," says roundtable Co-convener Tom Bartlett, a rangeland economist and retired professor at Colorado State University. "Our goal is to finalize the indicators and get them accepted and used so we can have better efficiency in sustaining rangelands."

After meeting 11 times, the stakeholders eventually settled on five comprehensive criteria by which these lands can be appraised.

A 1997 U.S. Department of Agriculture study found that rangelands have been receding about 1.5 million acres each year since the mid-1960s, or about one percent every four years.

About one-third of the entire U.S. land mass - some 800 million acres - is considered rangeland. It is spread over a wide range of ecosystems that include natural grasslands, savannas, shrublands, most deserts, tundra, coastal marshes and wet meadows.

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Cattle on Nevada rangeland (Photo courtesy University of Nevada, Reno)
Alaskan tundra, Colorado mountain meadows, the sagebrush plains of the Great Basin and Southwest desert plateaus are all considered rangeland.

Almost two-thirds of American rangeland is privately owned; the rest is regulated by federal, state and local government agencies.

Fire and weeds, overgrazing and depletion of water supplies are among the many threats to rangelands. Cheatgrass, a fast growing weed that originated in Russia, is one of a number of invasive species that have taken over American rangelands in the last 30 years, leaching nutrients from the soil and supplanting local species. Cattle can trample fragile native plants, soils, and streambanks, and contaminate waterways with waste.

The stakeholders Bartlett gathered for the Sustainable Rangelands Roundtable became a coalition of groups broad enough to include business interests such as the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and environmental organizations like the Idaho Conservation League and the National Wildlife Federation.

Tribal groups such as the Hopi and the Chippewa Cree sat down at the roundtable along with federal agencies such as the National Park Service, and universities from across the West. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center was at the table togther with the Western States Lands Commissioners and the American Sheep Association.

"There was a little contentiousness at first, with people wanting to push their issues and views about rangeland use," Bartlett told ENS. But the personal opinions quickly gave way to consensus over the task at hand - finding criteria and indicators to assess current rangeland conditions and their future sustainability.

Bartlett says the set of criteria and indicators agreed by all stakeholders are "the things you should be measuring in the ideal world."

Collectively, the roundtable says, these indicators should guide monitoring efforts to measure rangeland sustainability in the United States at the national scale.

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Colorado rangeland withers under four years of drought. (Photo courtesy BLM)
Now that the first report has been made public, more stakeholders can contribute their comments. "We think it will bring the dialogue to a higher level," Bartlett said.

Tom Lustig of Boulder, Colorado agrees. A lawyer for the National Wildlife Federation, Lustig participated in the roundtable discussions of legal, institutional and economic sustainability issues. "When this product is finished," he said, "you hope there will be general concurrence in the legitimacy of it and that folks would find it a useful instrument."

Government officials who are roundtable members are already using certain criteria, Bartlett says. "We have collaborative partners with all the agencies, and they bring it back to their agents," he says. "It's a slow process."

Bartlett says the report was conceived to be broad enough that he does not expect that every agency will use every criterion or indicator. He expects disagreements over whether certain criteria can be calculated.

"One that we'll have a hard time measuring is the threat or pressure on the integrity of cultural and spiritual resource values. But who knows? There might be some people out there who do that. Some things we say, we don't know how to do it at this time," Bartlett explains. "I'm not presumptuous enough to think that we can quantify it all."

To read the "First Approximation Report on Criteria and Indicators for Sustainable Rangelands," go to: http://sustainablerangelands.cnr.colostate.edu/.