Call them what you want—Y’all Qaeda, bullies, or protesters—the armed occupiers at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge have been the talk of the country. Their nationally televised game of fort offers a great opportunity to discuss one of the lesser known impacts on our national public lands: grazing.
EPIC’s “Project to Reform Public Land Grazing” has been hard at work to reform grazing on public lands in Northern California, from the Oregon border to south of Mount Shasta. Led by longtime environmentalist Felice Pace, EPIC contractor and volunteers have been out in the field, logging more than 224 volunteer hours on 14 different grazing allotments documenting violations and environmental impacts, the highlights of which are featured in an annual report, which can be found here. 
Unmanaged grazing is ecologically harmful. In California, grazing disrupts more acres of native plant communities than any other activity. Unlike deer or elk which browse on the move, cattle generally find an acre they like and stay put, eating away native vegetation and tearing up the soil. In 2015, the Project found extensive damage caused by grazing.
Grazing is known to contribute to water quality issues. For example, in Taylor Lake, a popular local swimming spot in the Russian Peak Wilderness, the Project documented cattle manure in the lake, which is not only gross but can serve as a vector for pathogens.
Cattle also destroy important willow wetlands. Cattle trudge through willow to browse on the willows and the tender grasses and sedges growing below. Overtime, this behavior will utterly destroy willow wetlands, converting the wetlands into grasslands. This is a big deal for the Willow Flycatcher, a bird species listed as “endangered” under the California Endangered Species Act. The Willow Flycatcher, as its name suggests, uses dense willow wetlands for breeding. Poorly managed cattle and this endangered species cannot cohabitate.
This environmental destruction is also heavily subsidized. According to a report by the Center for Biological Diversity, the federal government spent $143.6 million dollars on grazing programs in fiscal year 2014 but grazing receipts only totaled $18.5 million. The Feds pay for a lot—grazing employees, fences, corrals—but do not recoup their costs because they charge grazers 6.72 percent of fees charged by private land owners in the West.
Ranchers are emboldened because they view our national public lands as theirs to spoil. While the standoff at Malheur has drawn considerable attention, closer to home, this sense of entitlement is also present. In the Klamath National Forest, a growing number of ranchers are not removing their cattle on time, often merely leaving them to wander home. This is met without punishment by the Forest Service, which further encourages this sense of entitlement.
EPIC is gearing up for another season in the field and we could use your support. Together, we must remind government officials and stubborn ranchers that these lands belong to all of us. Their use by ranchers for grazing is a privilege, and if rules are not adhered to, their permits should be taken away.