Why Does the Federal Government Own So Much Land?

I have no intention of arguing the constitutionality of the federal government owning land. The U.S. federal government has always owned land and at times a lot of land (think Louisianan Purchase). As I was researching the enactment of the Taylor Grazing Act, I wondered why does the federal government own so much land in the West? I knew that much of the land administered by the BLM is referred to as “the land nobody wanted,” but was keeping this land part of a plan or did the government just get stuck with the land? Federal Land Ownership: Overview and Data from the Congressional Research Service had the answer.

At the time of the homestead acts, the federal government enacted land laws with three distinct goals: 1) selling land to raise money; 2) homesteading to encourage settlement; 3) keeping some federal lands to protect our scenic treasures, as well as retain natural resources that would be needed for future use such as timber or mining. By the late 1800s, a preservation and conservation movement began in the U.S. It ensured that certain federal lands and resources were left untouched or reserved for future use.

During the 20th century, the government changed its view from disposing of land to keeping and managing federal lands. During debates on the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act, some western members of Congress agreed that transferring the federal lands to the states was unlikely, but language in the act left disposal as a possibility. It was not until passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA) that Congress declared that federal public lands would not be sold.

Permanent federal land ownership was one several factors for the “Sagebrush Rebellion”, an effort that started in the late 1970s to push for state or local control over federal land and management decisions. This still continues today.

federal lands


Gorte, RW, CH Vincent, LA Hanson, and MR Rosenblum. 2012. Federal Land Ownership: Overview and Data Congressional Research Service. Congressional Research Service Report for Congress 7-5700. R42346. Washington DC, USA.

Rest-Rotation Grazing: Information is Accurate, But So Much is Missing

Below is part of a public comment from the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument Livestock Grazing Plan Amendment Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). It was published by the BLM in May 2014, Livestock Grazing Plan Amendment EIS: Scoping Report.

The points made in the comment, in my opinion, are accurate for the most part. But many main parts made by the authors are missing from the comment. Does the comment give the reader a good understanding of the paper? The original comment was one paragraph. I broke it in to sections and numbered each section to make it easier for the reader to follow. The comment is in blue and my comments are in black. Rest-Rotation Grazing: A New Management System for Perennial Bunchgrass Ranges by A. L. Hormay and M. W. Talbot will also be referenced.

(1) Hormay and Talbot (1961) originally developed guidance for rest-rotation grazing based on intensive field studies. I’m not certain what they mean by intensive. Hormay and Talbot (1961) did measure lots of variables and the study was very descriptive. However, they studied just three units in NE California; one was a cutover pine type, and two were grassland types. Also, no statistics were presented in the study.

(2) They stated, “While the idea of incorporating rest in grazing management is not new, the concept of longer rest periods than have heretofore been recommended, at least for mountain bunchgrass ranges, and of closer correlation of resting and grazing with plant growth requirements, is new.”  True, but the next sentence is: “Even though the rest periods under this system are longer than heretofore recommended, they are flexible.”

(3) They found that even with the rest-rotation system, some areas were more heavily used than others, re-growth was minimal on clipped plants after the seed-in-milk phase and clipping during active growth reduced total herbage yield during that year. A single season of clipping reduced basal area of forbs and grasses the next year. Four consecutive seasons of clipping at the seed-in-milk phase reduced basal area of Idaho fescue 80%, bottlebrush squirreltail 62%, longspur lupine 91% and wooly wyethia 16%. Four years’ rest after four years’ clipping resulted in little or no recovery of Idaho fescue, wooly wyethia and longspur lupine. True, but the commenters went from grazing straight to clipping (Clipping Does Not Simulate Grazing). Also, plants were clipped to 1.5” at different stages of plant growth. They were clipped once during the season except where regrowth was produced. Regrowth was clipped when full grown.

(4) They also found that cool-season grasses such as Idaho fescue varied in production by a factor of three, due to changes in annual precipitation, while the beginning of growth varied by up to a month with similar variations on time to flowering and seed ripening. I agree.

(5) Based on this research, the basic principle was to require adequate years of rest to allow the native plants to recover their vigor before again being grazed. They also recommended that it is important to include adequate monitoring of each grazed unit or pasture to determine if these rest periods are sufficient to maintain or restore production. Close enough.

I agree most of the statements above are correct, but as I stated, much information is left out of the comment that I’m not certain the reader gets a clear picture of the publication or their most important points. Below is more information from Hormay and Talbot (1961).

Hormay and Talbot’s conclusions were:

  1. Under continuous seasonal grazing some plants are repeatedly cropped closely and may die, and the production is lowered.
  2. Selective grazing is one of the main causes of range deterioration.
  3. Selective grazing cannot be prevented by adjusting stocking rate.
  4. The rest-rotation grazing system was designed to make proper rest possible and thereby increase forage and livestock production.

Steps recommended from Hormay and Talbot for a rest-rotation grazing system:

Step 1 – Graze for maximum livestock production

Step 2 – Recovery of key species. Rest may take one or more seasons, or less than a full season.

Step 3 – Rest until viable seed is produced followed by grazing (for maximum livestock production). This step is exceedingly important. It insures new seed and trampling due to grazing will work seed into the soil. Deteriorated sites are often unfavorable for seedling establishment, because the soil surface is hard and bare of litter and organic matter. Covering the seed by trampling is most important.

Step 4 – Rest to establish new plants.

Step 5 – If needed, continue rest to establish new plants.

The four basic steps may take 4, 5, 6, or more years to apply. To apply the yearly treatments, the range has to be divided into the same number of units as the number of treatments. A five-year treatment plan will probably satisfy the requirements of most bunchgrass ranges in the West. Introduced forage species can be seeded on deteriorated sites and managed with native species.

Stocking Under Rest-Rotation Grazing

  1. Stocking is based on the production and use of plants from all available forage, not just the key species.
  2. Plant species are classified as forage or non-forage; palatability is not considered.
  3. Stocking rate is calculated on the basis of production from all forage species.
  4. Stocking resulting in satisfactory range condition and livestock production cannot be determined prior to actual experience on the range. It can be estimated from forage production.
  5. Fairly heavy stocking (66% utilization) is desirable in rest-rotation grazing.
  6. A high stocking rate forces greater use of less palatable forage and less accessible grazing areas, resulting in intensive trampling where reproduction is most needed.
  7. Close cropping and trampling can be tolerated because the range is rested at critical times.
  8. Were it not for soil erosion, practically all of the vegetation in grazed units could be utilized.

Season of Grazing

  1. Hormay and Talbot provide a general guide for selecting a suitable grazing season, assuming the vegetation behaves like Idaho fescue.
  2. Since rest-rotation grazing maintains rangeland regardless of the time of beginning and ending of the growing season, the choice of seasons is up to the livestock operator.

Livestock Distribution

  1. Rest-rotation grazing generally results in better livestock distribution and more complete use of the available forage.
  2. To improve control of distribution within pastures use water developments, salt, riding or herding.
  3. When cost of fencing is prohibitive, consider: 1) closing water on rested areas, 2) leaving water open on grazed areas, and 3) placing salt in strategic locations to get desired distribution.

“In effect, grazing is eliminated as an environmental factor under rest-rotation grazing.”

When Does Science Become Advocacy?

Advoacy and Policy
The graphic presents examples of actions that scientists take in conducting and reporting research. Listed actions on the left represent actions of policy advocacy, those on the right do not, and the center is a gray area. This is an adaptation of policy advocacy graphic and article by Scott et. al (2007). Click on the photo to make it larger.

In the applied sciences, normative science is a type of information that is developed, presented, or interpreted based on an assumed, usually unstated, preference for a particular policy.

Scott, J. M., Rachlow, J. L., Lackey, R. T., Pidgorna, A. B., Aycrigg, J. L., Feldman, G. R., … & Steinhorst, R. (2007). Policy advocacy in science: prevalence, perspectives, and implications for conservation biologists.Conservation Biology, 21(1), 29-35.

Clipping Does Not Simulate Grazing

Clipping studies are used by some groups to point out the potential ill effects of grazing on plant health. According to Trlica and Rittenhouse (1993), plant ecologists often focus on the defoliation aspect (removal of plant material) of grazing and how individual plants respond to defoliation. A large number of studies have used clipping treatments, rather than grazing animals, to defoliate plants. Ecologists often assume clipped plants and grazed plants responded equally, but many studies have shown clipping cannot be used to simulate grazing.

Finding an article that compared clipping to grazing meant going back to the 1960s. Compared to clipping, livestock 1) tend to graze plants to different heights, not to a single uniform height; 2) remove less plant material; 3) eat specific plant parts rather than the whole plant; 4) may change plant size and form by selecting certain individual plants within a species; 5) affect the build-up of plant litter differently; 6) add nutrients to the soil through urine and feces; 7) trample the area they graze; 8) change forage preferences during the grazing season; 9) affect the competition from neighboring plants through grazing; 10) do not graze all plants continuously throughout the grazing season (Jameson 1963).

In 1975, Rickard et al. reported that clipping studies do not simulate how cattle graze plants. Especially if animals are able to select among multiple plant species and plant parts over a large area. Working in south-central Washington, a 9” precipitation zone, they concluded that it would take many years of moderate grazing before shifts in plant species composition and abundance would be noticed.

Some researchers have tried to mimic grazing through clipping. They found that these clipping treatments were not as severe as the treatments where plants were clipped to a uniform height. For example, when half of a bluebunch wheatgrass plant was clipped the basal area increased by 18.6%. However, if the entire plant was clipped the basal area decreased by 7.8%. The basal area of unclipped plants increased by 5.2%. In this study, plants were clipped to a 3” stubble height just before seedheads emerged (Clark et al. 1998). When compared to unclipped plants, Stroud et al. (1985) reported that simulated grazing of western wheatgrass did not decrease above or below ground production (roots and rhizomes) provided season-long utilization (clipping) was below 80%. Tiller numbers, however, increased 28% on unclipped plants compared to plants under simulated grazing. Simulated grazing involved clipping individual plant tillers one to four times during the growing season. Clipping intensity on tillers was 33%, 67%, or 100%. For most simulated grazing treatments, season-long utilization ranged between 64 and 79%.

After an extensive review of the literature on herbivory, Maschinski and Whitham (1989) came to the following conclusions: A plant’s response to herbivory is flexible. Herbivory can be detrimental, neutral, or even beneficial for a plant depending on conditions and its ability to replace tissue eaten by herbivores. The effect of grazing on plants depends on the frequency, intensity, competition, nutrient availability, timing of grazing, and the weather.


Clark, PE, WC Krueger, LD Bryant, and DR Thomas. 1998. Spring defoliation effects on bluebunch wheatgrass: II. Basal area. Journal of Range Management 51:526-530.

Jameson, DA 1963. Responses of individual plants to harvesting. Botanical Review 29(4): 532-594

Maschinski, J and TG Whitham. 1989. The continuum of plant responses to herbivory: the influence of plant association, nutrient availability, and timing. American Naturalist 134:1-19.

Rickard, W.H., D.W. Uresk, and J.F. Cline. 1975. Impact of cattle grazing on three perennial grasses in south-central Washington. Journal of Range Management 28:108-112.

Stroud, DO, RH Hart, MJ Samuel, and JD Rodgers. 1985. Western wheatgrass responses to simulated grazing. Journal of Range Management 38:103-108.

Trlica, MJ and LR Rittenhouse. 1993. Grazing and plant performance. Ecological Applications 3:21-23.

Sauer (1978) More Than Just Dead Leaves

Currently, I’m selecting material for my blog posts from a recently published article, Carter et al. (2014). Authors of the paper represent Grand Canyon Trust, Western Watersheds, Foundation for Deep Ecology, Kiesha’s Preserve and Wild Utah Project. Carter et al. (2014) is a peer-reviewed paper published in a new, rather obscure (in my opinion) journal, International Journal of Biodiversity. After reading the paper, I questioned and researched some of the authors’ statements and the articles they used to support those statements. I begin with Sauer (1978). (Note: Words in bold are the points I address in my post.)

According to Carter et al. (2014): “Grasses with attached dead leaves are more productive than grasses from which the dead leaves have been removed. Loss of these dead tissues to grazers increases thermal damage to the growing shoots and reduces the vigor of the entire plant [28].” According to the reference section in Carter et al. (2014) reference 28 is Sauer (1978).

Sauer graphic

Clipping to the crown is much shorter than 80 percent utilization. Normally, the recommended utilization level for livestock grazing is 50 percent.

Dead Leaves: Sauer (1978) didn’t just remove dead leaves from dormant bluebunch wheatgrass (BBWG), he removed all dead plant material: leaves, stems, nodes, sheaths and inflorescences.

Grazers: Carter et al. (2014) doesn’t define grazers. In Sauer (1978), BBWG plants were not grazed they were clipped with scissors to the crown leaving no stubble. Clipping was much more severe than almost any livestock grazing.

Thermal damage: Sauer (1978) doesn’t mention thermal damage or plant vigor in his paper.

Vigor: Sauer (1978) reported that clipping all standing dead from BBWG did not change the number of flower stalks or the height of the flower culms plants produced than when compared to unclipped plants. BBWG vigor can be determined by combining the number of flower stalks with the maximum length of flower culms (Mueggler 1975). Basal area has also been used to measure vigor (Clark et al. 1998). Sauer (1978) reported the basal areas of clipped plants were not different from unclipped plants. Thus, BBWG vigor was probably not affected by removing dead material from BBWG plants.

So what did Sauer (1978) find? He found that removing all standing dead material decreased the weight of new leaves and stems by 28%, decreased the loss of standing dead by 21% and decreased leaf length by 25%. Sauer concluded that standing dead is not a deterrent to growth and beneficial to bluebunch wheatgrass.


Carter, J., A. Jones, M. O’Brien, J. Ratner, and G. Wuerthner. 2014. Holistic Management: Misinformation on the Science of Grazed Ecosystems. International Journal of Biodiversity. http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2014/163431

Clark, PE, WC Krueger, LD Bryant, And DR Thomas. 1998. Spring defoliation effects on bluebunch wheatgrass: II. Basal area. J. Range Manage. 51:526-530.

Mueggler, W. F. 1975. Rate and pattern of vigor recovery in Idaho fescue and Bluebunch wheatgrass. J. Range Manage. 28(3): 198-204.

Sauer, R.H. 1978. Effect of removal of standing dead material on growth of Agropyron spicatum. Journal of Range Management 31:121–122.