Wendee Holtcamp
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Cows in the Forest

"Twigs" News Item

By Wendee Holtcamp

Published in American Forests Magazine, Summer 1998.

Livestock grazing is a long-ignored cause of the decline of Western forests, say researchers Joy Belsky and Dana Blumenthal in their recent Conservation Biology paper, and they compiled fifty years of evidence to support their claim.

Looking at studies specific to low- and mid-elevation forests of the interior west (the Columbia Basin, from New Mexico to Montana and Washington), they conclude that cattle grazing within forests leads to increasingly dense timber stands, in the same way that fire suppression and selective logging can. When cows trample and graze understory grasses and herbs, they remove competition for young saplings, allowing the young trees to grow in unnaturally high densities. Cattle also compact the soil, increase erosion, and change understory plant composition.

Belsky and Blumenthal focused their review on interior West arid forests to grab the attention of scientists developing the Clinton-mandated Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project (ICBEMP). All eyes are watching ICBEMP because it will be the most comprehensive ecosystem management plan, covering the largest area (75 million acres), ever developed. According to Belsky, ICBEMP has deliberately ignored forest grazing in the plan. "Out of 3500 pages of draft Environmental Impact Statements and accompanying scientific documents, they included three sentences and no standards on forest grazing, and some teethless standards on riparian grazing," says Belsky.

Geoff Middaugh, Deputy Project Manager of ICBEMP, says "We have concern with some of Belsky's conclusions." Specifically, they are concerned that Belsky's findings may not apply to other regions and habitats. "It's just one piece of a very big puzzle," says Middaugh. He claims ICBEMP is not ignoring forest grazing, and admits they need to look more closely at issues Belsky raised. Scientists within ICBEMP are gathering several "pieces of science" related to forest grazing, which they will incorporate into the final document, slated for completion by Spring 1999.

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