Conservationists were ecstatic when, in the waning days of his presidency, Bill Clinton created a string of new monuments across the West. Then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, a prime driver behind these freshly minted preserves, called them "a fabulous, fabulous present from this administration for generations to come."
But when it comes to the Sonoran Desert National Monument, some say that present is still in the box. Straddling Interstate 8 south of Phoenix, and covering a brawny half-million acres, the cactus-studded preserve is still home to steady, often heavy cattle grazing. According to critics, the resulting destruction hardly complements a national monument.
Now those critics are taking the matter to court. On Aug. 11, a group called the Western Watersheds Project filed a complaint against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, claiming that cows are wreaking havoc on this preserve. The lawsuit argues that cattle, sometimes numbering in the thousands, are causing soil erosion, trampling saguaro seeds, wiping out native plant species and pummeling ground cover used by wildlife.
Essentially, the lawsuit argues that the BLM needs to depart from its traditional role of managing multiuse federal lands and start running the monument as a monument--one filled with precious natural resources that demand better protection.
The proclamation creating this preserve spelled out those protections quite clearly, says Greta Anderson, Arizona director for Western Watersheds. "A lot of Clinton's monument proclamations weren't very specific with regards to grazing. But this one was very specific about what the agency is supposed to do. That's why it's particularly egregious that the BLM hasn't dealt with it yet."
Indeed, that proclamation, issued on January 17, 2001, ordered the eventual termination of all grazing permits on the monument acres south of Interstate 8. In addition, "grazing on federal lands north of Interstate 8 shall be allowed to continue," says the document, "only to the extent that the Bureau of Land Management determines that grazing is compatible with the paramount purpose of protecting the objects identified in this proclamation."
Therein lies the rub, says Anderson. "The proclamation directs them to make a compatibility determination to allow grazing only if they could decide that it wasn't harming the monument. We think they know what the answer to that is, but they've been postponing making any decision. I think it's contentious, and they just don't want to deal with it."
But Mike Taylor, the BLM's deputy state director for resources, argues that his staff is keeping close tabs on the rangeland and hasn't identified significant damage. "Whether it's obvious that grazing is compatible or not, that's really a debatable point," he says. "We're not taking this lightly, and we're going through some pretty exhaustive studies and research to make sure that whatever decision we make is the right one."
However, allowing cattle onto the Sonoran Desert preserve does raise several immediate concerns. For one, the decision to restrict cattle from only half of the monument when it was created smells more of political compromise than hard biological science.
For another, a grazing literature review commissioned by the BLM itself, and conducted by the Nature Conservancy, gets right to the point: "Based on our review of the literature on grazing management strategies," writes the Nature Conservancy team, "we conclude that no currently described approach ... is completely applicable to or appropriate for the Sonoran Desert ecosystem."
The report goes on to note that "the highly variable and overall low precipitation, which contributes to variable soil moisture conditions and overall low, highly variable and patchy primary productivity, makes the Sonoran Desert marginal rangeland."
That, presumably, would make the Sonoran Desert National Monument marginal rangeland as well. Yet a handful of leasers, including a large Phoenix feedlot, graze this range regularly, and sometimes heavily, particularly after rains bring a spurt of growth.
Contrary to the BLM's position, meanwhile, the Western Watersheds lawsuit offers a dismal picture of monument conditions. "Despite scientific studies," it says, "showing that livestock are degrading soils, reducing plant diversity, increasing weeds and non-native plants, and damaging wildlife on the monument, BLM renewed numerous grazing permits for additional 10-year terms in 2005."
Taylor says those permits could be adjusted or terminated if necessary. "But grazing is, by law, an authorized, legitimate use of public lands. So it's not something we just make a hasty decision about."
He says his agency is doing its own research on the grazing allotments. "We have some pretty specific studies we go through to assess the health of the land," in a process developed in conjunction with range-management experts from the University of Arizona. "We feel that we have a sound scientific evaluation process.
"It's not as if we just walk off and let things go," he says. "We monitor grazing on all the allotments. If there's a drought situation, we work with the 'allottees' on a very close basis, to make sure that they've got an appropriate level of cattle--or none--out there."
In the meantime, the BLM is crafting a resource-management plan that should codify all if this--if it's ever completed, says Anderson.
"They've been promising us the draft plan since 2005, and it hasn't come out yet. They've had a lot of staff turnover, and I feel for them. But I think that if they can't properly manage one of the monument uses, they should just not allow it."
Taylor admits that the draft has taken longer than expected, but is slated for release this fall, with a final plan ready several months after that.
But Anderson says that her group has run out of patience. She says the BLM can act quickly when it wants to, pointing to the recent, temporary banning of off-road vehicles in parts of the monument. "We think they should have taken the same proactive approach with grazing. Instead, what they did was extend the grazing permits to 2015. We think that was illegal."
Meanwhile, "the final decision on this could be years away," she says.