Explaining Multiple Use

Cattle graze on Buckeye Meadow allotment.


Among the many challenges of my 1960s seasonal Toiyabe National Forest fire prevention guard job was explaining multiple use management practices to citizen-owners of the National Forest System.

One afternoon in Buckeye Canyon, for example, I met a family of four backpackers returning from a several-day trek into the Hoover Wilderness high country. They’d had a great time, the prosperous-looking head of the family told me, but he wanted to talk about cattle. The round tin cup hanging from each family member’s belt gave me more than a hint of his opinion on the subject.

“Why are all these cattle here?” the man demanded to know, waving his arm toward Big Meadows, well outside the wilderness boundary.

“This is a national forest grazing allotment,” I answered. “The rancher who owns those cattle holds a grazing permit and pays a fee to graze them here.”

“They’re ruining the country,” he countered. “They shouldn’t be here. Why are they allowed to be here?”

I didn’t get far with my explanation of the multiple-use concept under which our district range conservationist labored to manage cattle and sheep grazing allotments in a way that would maintain the quality of the forage resource as well as the integrity of the watershed, wildlife, and recreation resources. He didn’t care that some ranchers depended on national forest range to stay in business. He just wanted those cattle out of there, pronto! And, although there were no active timber sales on the district, he wanted national forest timber cutting stopped, too. Basically, he wanted national forests to be national parks.

So I took a different tack. After assuring him I shared his concerns for proper public land management, I used the next few minutes of our conversation to find out more about him. I soon knew this gent was a corporate executive who lived the good life in Palo Alto. He and his family resided in a rambling redwood house and dined on steaks at fashionable restaurants college students such as I certainly couldn’t afford.

“You know,” I suggested, “the resources that make the way you and millions of other Americans live possible have to some from somewhere.”

“Look, I see what you’re driving at,” he responded. “But they don’t have to come from places that should be wilderness areas.”

“Places like California’s redwood coast? Places like public rangelands?”

“Exactly….” Just for an instant, his eyes showed he had made the connection, he had recognized the conflict between his affluent lifestyle and his environmental convictions. But only for an instant. He wasn’t ready to accept—or concede to me—the fact that he couldn’t have it both ways forever.

“The Forest Service should get those cows out of here!” were his last words to me. But he sounded more thoughtful, less arrogant, less certain.


Adapted from the 2018 third edition of Toiyabe Patrol, the writer’s memoir of five U.S. Forest Service summers on the Toiyabe National Forest in the 1960s.

7 thoughts on “Explaining Multiple Use”

  1. Good post, Les. I think many of us struggle with accepting some parts of how multiple use plays out on national forests. As a BLM geologist used to say, “everything comes from somewhere and if we don’t grow it, we dig it.” Personally, I struggle the most with grazing on national forest lands. We can play the numbers game and show what a tiny percentage of the US beef consumption come from cattle grazing on NFS land. We can look at the many studies that have shown how cattle and sheep grazing impact the landscape (e.g., vegetation composition, reduced riparian vegetation, increased sedimentation, increased nutrients in water which increase algal blooms, etc). We can discuss the perceived impacts of cattle and sheep grazing on recreation – it certainly reduces my personal enjoyment. And there is, of course, the never ending conflict of native predators preying on domestic cattle and sheep. But, then there is the other side. I have personal friends who have grazing allotments on NFS land. If they lose their allotments, they can’t make ends meet and will sell and subdivide their land that adjoins the national forest. This would impact many things including reducing elk winter range. And, many of the ranchers would end up leaving to find work elsewhere, forever changing the diversity of people who make up our small communities. It isn’t an easy thing, this multiple use on national forests. As I backpack in areas filled with cattle, cow pies and flies, I repeat the mantra, “tolerance… tolerance… tolerance.”

  2. Les provides an interesting anecdote, one in line with the “out-of-touch coastal elite” narrative that has gained traction on this blog. But the instincts and observations of the “prosperous-looking head of the family” that Les encountered were spot on: cattle degrade natural areas.

    As Mike points out, cattle that graze public lands provide a tiny percentage of the beef consumed in the U.S., yet have an enormous impact across tens of millions of acres on native vegetation, native predators, riparian areas, water quality, soil compaction, biological soil crusts, and countless other ecological aspects, not to mention recreation.

    I disagree, though, that the public must tolerate the status quo to subsidize a relatively small number of cattle operations and prop up business models that are not otherwise viable in the name of “multiple use.” How does allowing all these ongoing adverse impacts provide the greatest good to the greatest number in the long run?

    And why should we just throw up our hands in the air and accept the “cows vs. condos” talking point without really digging into the data and exploring all other policy options to protect lower elevation habitat on private lands? We are capable of developing and implementing other thoughtful solutions rather than accepting a status quo that continues to degrade public lands.

    • John, I did not mean to imply that the public needs to tolerate the status quo, rather I shared my very imperfect personal approach on how I deal with the current situation. Personally, I don’t think there needs to be an immediate end to all domestic grazing on NFS land, but it could be done gradually through permanent retirement of grazing permits as permittees get out of the business. Or, allotments could be retired through buyout programs. From what I can tell, neither of these processes have support within the agency.

      As for the “cows vs condos” talking point… it’s real. Certainly there are incentives that can be used to try to minimize the conversion of private rangeland to subdivisions, but money talks and many landowners will do what is most lucrative. In Colorado, county commissioners have only limited control as landowners can subdivide their land into 40 acre lots with or without the approval of the commissioners. In the 1990s, a nearby 3,000+ acre ranch did just that and now each 40 acre lot has a house, many with fences and dogs. This was all important winter range, but is no longer used by elk and deer. Additionally, in the two counties in which I have lived most of my life (they share a border), the county commissioners tend to be conservative and strongly believe in property rights, so they tend to approve any subdivision proposed. My wife and I have our 120 acres that border the national forest in a conservation easement. Our neighbor, who owns a much larger tract of land, has done the same, but just down the road a couple miles a large parcel was subdivided and has probably 100 homes, most of which sit vacant in the winter.

      • Thanks for the reply, Mike.

        Yes, most landowners will do what’s most lucrative. Does that mean vast expanses of public lands must be held hostage to those landowners for threat of repercussions to also-valuable habitat on their private property? That’s hyperbole, but you understand the frustration underlying it.

        I’m interested in seeing any hard data that connects public lands grazing restrictions or elimination in a given area directly to the loss of lower elevation habitat value on private property through sale/subdivision, but I’ve yet to read more than anecdotal data.

        I’d also be interested in more details about the 3,000+ acre ranch you described, if you have any, like whether the owner had permits to graze on public lands, and whether restrictions or reductions in those AUMs directly led the owner to sell/subdivide, etc. Same with the large parcel down the road that now has 100 homes. Each sell/subdivide situation likely has its own unique backstory, which may or may not have any connection to grazing restrictions.

        • I don’t know enough of the details in either of these cases to speak with authority, but it doesn’t really matter. Bottom line is land adjoining NFS land in this area sells for a premium and if a rancher lost his/her permit, why wouldn’t they sell? I have one good friend who is a permittee who said he is thinking of doing just that because of the planned reintroduction of wolves in CO. There is absolutely no reason to argue over the merit of his reasoning, but in my mind, if he sold his land and gave up his permit, it would be a great opportunity to permanently retire the allotments on which he runs cattle.

  3. Last time i went hiking up a national forest trail, by the time i came out to my car i really despised the horse-trail riders who were having their experience…the weather was moist and the trail had constant puddles of liquid horse sh—-t , seemingly at ever turn…i thought the trail riders ought get off their lazy a—-zes and walk like us real forest explorers!!! And I eat hamburger , not steak since the 4 monopolies who handle meat packing of beef consorted to gouge the public for ever last dime , and the word is the ranchers got no increases…..i bet those on horses think its only a fool who walks and i suspect the person and his tribe outfitted with matching tin cups thinks people who bust their buns raising beef are fools alike…intolerance will lead to wars, reversal of fortune ,sooner or later… !!

  4. As a lifelong environmentalist, I’ve finally come around to accepting that multiple use is the best way to ensure that public lands remain truly public, at least until something better comes around. Only a blind person would assert that livestock don’t have profound impacts on land and watersheds, but pretending that (unmitigated) recreation as currently allowed is free of significant and enduring impacts is unrealistic as well. That includes backpacking, and definitely mountain biking.
    The ways in which grazing can be practiced much more regeneratively are far from fully explored, as are the ways in which recreation is intolerably harmful. Too many folks on each side are stuck in their beliefs.


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