On January 12, 2016, Jim Upchurch, Deputy Regional Forester for the Southwestern Region told attendees of the legislative briefing hosted by Arizona State Senator Sylvia Allen what most already knew; the federal government does not own the federally managed land within the borders of Arizona.
“About over about 100 years ago, the first chief of the Forest Service coined the phrase, “the greatest good for the greatest number,” and that phrase is still applicable today as we manage the national forests. We are trying to manage for the greatest good – for the greatest number and that is not an easy task. It is a challenging one. Within the State of Arizona we have 6 national forests and they are represented by the forest supervisors and manager here. You know them by their names: the Coconino, the Kaibab, the Prescott, the Apache-Sitgreaves, the Tonto, and the Coronado. These forests represent some of the best landscapes within the state and are really prized possessions of the citizens of Arizona,” stated Upchurch.
“Contrary to what you might have heard lately about federal ownership of lands, the Forest Service does not own a single acre of land in Arizona,” continued Upchurch. “We don’t own a single acre of any land in the United States.”
Had he concluded with that statement, his candor would have been astonishing, but he did not. Instead he told the people of Arizona their land was being managed for “not only the local population but populations of people in New Jersey, New York, and California.”
What the people of New Jersey, New York, and California see of Arizona’s forest is vastly different from what the residents of Arizona’s rural counties see. While the city slickers see great vistas, as they stroll or hike on carefully crafted paths, the people of the west see their big sky filled with black smoke.
The people of the west are being choked by the black smoke emanating from their forests as federal agencies are being choked by self-described environmental groups, who use anti-western people’s rhetoric in their fundraising materials and line their pockets with the settlements they win in nuisance suits against the government.
Meanwhile, the visitors from New Jersey, New York, and California return home to watch the national news reports of those crazy renegade ranchers in the west. They are sold the idea that those ranchers are simply anti-government radicals. They do not know that while the Forest Service and BLM allow the land to be ravaged by wildfires, it is the ranchers who are scrambling to keep the forest and range lands from going up in smoke.
Who can blame them though? The people of New Jersey, New York, and California do not understand what it means to live off the land. As a result, they do not understand that to live off the land, one must conserve and protect it.
In his book, Alligators in the Moat: Politics and the Mexican Border, Arizona rancher Ed Ashurst discusses the ravaging forest fires that have consumed range land in the southwest and the federal government that allows it. He writes of the fires set by the Mexican cartels’ mules as they cross the wide-open border.
“On May 8, 2011, Border Patrol agents tracked four illegal aliens to the Burro Springs area. A short distance ahead of where the Border Patrol agents turned around, a fire had started and several Forest Service first responders were in the area also with plans to attack the fire. Before the Forest Service personnel or the Border Patrol agents got to the place where the fire originated a short distance from Burro Springs the Forest Service employees and federal agents were given orders to evacuate. The fire would grow in stature and fame and would burn from the eighth of May until the twenty-fifth of June. The federal government would spend in excess of fifty million dollars fighting it, and it would eventually burn a total of 222,954 acres, or 350 square miles. The fire would go down in history as the fifth largest wildfire in Arizona history and would become known as Horseshoe Number Two. The origin of the fire was never officially investigated. The first responders were ordered to evacuate before they reached the exact location where the fire started,” writes Ashurst.
The Hammonds burned 140 acres and they are villainized, the cartels burned 222,954 and more.
The ranchers’ reality is something no one can really understand. One rancher described finding one of his cows tied to a tree out on a southern border land range. Because she was not free to graze, she died of starvation. He was torn up at the thought of the painful death. The cartels, who tied her there, did so to let the rancher know that his death would be as painful should he ever make a misstep.
Ashurst speaks for all ranchers when he writes, “The U.S. Forest Service is managed, or should we say, supposed to be managed under the umbrella of the United States Department of Agriculture. The very name “Department of Agriculture” connotes a sustained effort to promote a viable plan or course of action to harvest a product off the land. Sadly, in twenty-first-century America, in the case of the Forest Service (and the Bureau of Land Management), nothing could be further from the truth.”
Greenlee County Supervisor Robert Corbell told his constituents after the Allen hearing that it was important to be there and be heard. “I think that my being there for the people of Greenlee County and the state of Arizona was important. I know that these kinds of meetings are generally outside of Greenlee, but if you are not at the table and have some input on the issues then you are on the menu.”
The feeding frenzy continues. News of the ranchers and their fight keep the mainstream media busy as they slice and dice the facts to suit the radical rancher narrative. But the truth be told; you will never find a tougher, meaner, gentler, more sensitive and tree-hugging group of people in the world than the western rancher.
“The federal government is obsessed with putting a constantly increasing amount of land under its control, yet it does not increase the appropriation to care for that land. We see massive forest fires that destroy not only trees but the land and habitat for wildlife, including endangered species,” stated Arizona State Representative Mark Finchem. “Arizona has a proven track record of caring for the land it has control over. We have done a far better job than the federal agencies in caring for the land.”
Whatever the truth may be, it is the truth that will save our forests, and range lands. Until all stakeholders commit to ascertaining the truth, the western lands will be managed for the people who experience them from well-manicured paths and have no understanding or appreciation for the western way of life…. or the life of our lands.