Thrown Off the Cliffs: Families Face Eviction Due to New Clinton National Monument, by Gretchen Randall and Tom Randall

With the stroke of a pen, President Bill Clinton is expected to end a way of life in southwestern Idaho before he leaves office by creating the Owyhee Canyonlands National Monument. This designation of 2.7 million acres of mountains, canyons, steep cliffs and grassland plateaus seems sure to be the final blow that will end cattle grazing – a major activity in Owyhee County for over a century.

Environmentalists who are pushing the designation, according to the Idaho Statesman, say they want grazing rights (granted to homesteaders in the 1800s) as well as hunting protected in the new monument. However, recent history suggests the real intention of the Bureau of Land Management, under Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt – who is also urging the designation – is to end grazing and force the ranchers off their land.

In Owyhee County, Idaho, local Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officials have very nearly succeeded in their more than decade-long, vendetta-like struggle to drive three ranch families from the land. In doing so, they violated the letter of the law, the will of Congress, their own rules and the science of sound range management.

The ranchers, Tim and Rosemary Lowry, Mike and Jeannie Stanford and Sheryl Anderson (who took over ranching operations when her husband Jim was tragically killed after his horse threw him in a stream) had their grazing rights in an area of high mountain rangeland known as the Cliffs Allotment abruptly reduced more than 50% by the BLM in the summer of 2000.1 These grazing rights on federal land were granted in the 1800s when the ranchers originally established their “home” ranches under the Homestead Act.

Most important to the ranchers, much of the current grazing reduction – expressed in animal units per month (AUMs) – was accomplished by reducing the number of days the Cliffs pastures could be used. In the case of Anderson and the Stanfords, the reductions were from 137 days to 70 days. The Lowrys’ allotment was cut from 107 days to just 45.2 This cut followed BLM-ordered AUM reductions in previous years, according to records of the three families, which brought the total number of AUMs the ranchers could graze on the Cliffs allotment down 63%, from a total of 2,455 to 914.

As part of the BLM’s February 2000 decision to reduce the number of days allowed on the Cliffs pastures, it set the end of the Cliffs Allotment grazing season at July 15 rather than September 30.3 This order produced three hardships, the last of which is potentially devastating. First, by the time appeals were exhausted, there was only a matter of days left to round up hundreds of cows scattered throughout thousands of acres of high mountains, steep ravines and canyons. This task was further complicated by the early date, since it is the harsher mountain weather of late September that gives the cows the impetus to start down on their own. More critical, however, was the fact that, from late July and into fall, the Lowrys, Stanfords and Anderson were forced to graze their cows in their privately-owned lower pastures that were meant to provide their sole source of winter feed.

A Herculean effort is now underway to get these cows through the winter. Ranchers in the surrounding area are trucking in all the hay they can spare – a one-time solution that will, ultimately, still lead to failure if the ranchers of the Cliffs Allotment cannot return their cows to the high pasture for the full summer grazing season next year.

A revision to the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act, Public Law 102-381, Title I, Oct. 5, 1992 Stat. 1378 provides: “On appeal any proposed reduction in excess of 10 per centum shall be suspended pending final action on the appeal, which shall be completed within two years after the appeal is filed.”4

However, here the families found themselves in a “catch-22” situation. The BLM’s Idaho field manager, John Fend, who has since been promoted to the agency’s Washington, DC office, contended that, for the two-year suspension to go into effect, the appeal must be filed with the BLM’s own board of appeals. But since appeals to this board had been unsuccessful in the past, the ranchers filed their appeal in Federal District Court instead, hoping for a more favorable outcome. While an outcome more favorable to the families may or may not ensue, the case may drag out for years, the suspension of the grazing cutback does not apply and the BLM refuses to voluntarily suspend its cutback until the case is resolved.

Cliffs Allotment History: Bureaucratic Bullying vs. Environmental Concern

Ironically, the three families of the Cliffs Allotment have been credited by their neighbors with being among those who have worked most diligently to cooperate with the BLM. The record seems to support such a conclusion and demonstrates BLM intransigence and determination to block any efforts to develop a workable Allotment Management Plan (AMP) or Riparian Management Plan (RMP), as required by an earlier court decision:

*1988: The BLM attempted to terminate grazing in mid-season using a “full force and effect decision” – an arbitrary “must do” order.5 Ranchers appealed the decision to the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA), and BLM made only slight modifications of the grazing end-dates.

*1989: An appeal was heard by an IBLA administrative judge. BLM argued that the case was moot because it was not grazing season. The judge heard the case and ruled: a) The BLM and ranchers must develop a Cliffs Riparian Management Plan within 90 days and submit it to a Coordinated Resource Management Committee (CRM) and b) If the CRM cannot agree on the plan, and they did not, the allotment is to be managed by the original plan as a default.6

[It should be noted that throughout this conflict, and most recently in the 2000 cutback of grazing rights, the BLM has used control of Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) in Cliffs streams as one of the reasons for the cutbacks. TMDLs are the maximum amount of a pollutant, such as silt or bacteria, that can be deposited in a body of water during a 24-hour period. However, no specific TMDL standards were established and statutory authority to establish and enforce such standards rests with the Environmental protection Agency, not the BLM. At this point, even the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority in this area is in question.]

*Over the next two years, the various agencies which make up the CRM held over 30 meetings without resolving the key issue of grazing practices. In the end, the BLM walked out on the meetings, terminating the committee’s work and reverting management of the Cliffs to the Riparian Management Plan.7

*1991: Contrary to the RMP, the BLM issued a Proposed Decision which required the ranchers to build a new fence – two miles long – and institute a “rest and rotation” grazing system as well as reduce grazing by 30%. Though the BLM said the fence was needed to provide for “rotational grazing” in which cattle are rotated from one pasture to another to provide resting periods for each pasture, it was instead a project with ever-changing standards under which the ranchers were doomed to fail. Environmentalists appealed the fence and the ranchers appealed the grazing reduction.

Before the environmentalists’ appeal had been filed, BLM ordered the ranchers to build the fence and demanded: a) The entire two miles of fence must be 100% complete in three days, b) It must be built through a Wilderness Study Area normally off-limits to human activity and c) The ranchers could use only hand tools in the Wilderness Study Area – no air hammers to drill through the nearly solid rock – and must carry all materials and equipment in by foot. But, as is the custom in rural areas, the surrounding ranchers pitched in to help. When the BLM’s Owyhee Area Manager called Jeannie Stanford to order they stop work on the fence, she was able to tell him, “The fence is done.”8

*1992: The ranchers’ success in completing the nearly impossible task of building the fence under severe restrictions did not mean total victory in the matter. The BLM acquiesced to the environmentalists’ appeals and tore out the recently completed fence.9 All that remains are the cattle guards that prevent cattle from crossing roads that interrupted the fence at various points. The BLM did, however, rescind its 30% cut in grazing.

*Over the years between 1992 and 1999 BLM resisted doing an AMP for the Cliffs Allotment as it is required to do because environmentalists complained that they could not be included in the development of an AMP. For an AMP, the BLM substituted an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) which is intended to be used only for the evaluation of an AMP. This action allowed the environmentalists input equal to that of the ranchers.

Instead of issuing the standard 10-year renewal of the Cliffs grazing permits, the BLM issued only one- and two-year renewals. They increased regulations for remaining grass stubble left after grazing from two to four, then to six, inches.10 This became a virtual de facto end to grazing because many of the grasses in the high pastures do not grow to six inches in height.

A Question of Motive: Who Really Cares for the Land?

In the end, it may not matter to the three families whether Bill Clinton names a new national monument or not. With the grazing cutbacks, they are virtually out of business and their own home ranches are thus rendered virtually valueless. But the motives behind naming a national monument as well as the entire process pursued in the Cliffs Allotment must be questioned.

While the Bureau of Land Management has used environmental concerns to curtail grazing rights, Owyhee County, private and university experts and even the BLM’s own studies show that the high pastures of the Cliffs Allotment were being improved, not harmed, under the stewardship of the Lowrys, Stanfords and Andersons. BLM documents show that 81% of the allotment was rated in poor condition in 1980, and none is rated in poor condition today.11

When you talk to the ranchers, ride through the steep canyons and up the grand mountains with them, when you walk the high pasture and look into their eyes as they talk about the land and their animals the reason for their careful stewardship becomes obvious. They care.

These families don’t get rich at ranching. By many standards, they barely make a living. They work long hours under back-breaking conditions. They take huge risks, both financially and personally.

Jim Anderson, who drowned when his horse threw him, didn’t really die of an accident. He died risking his life when he rode his horse into a dangerously storm-swollen stream to save a cow that was stranded on a rapidly shrinking island. The horse panicked and Jim was thrown.

Jim couldn’t swim.

But Jim cared.

He cared about the land.

He cared about his animals.

When Bill Clinton names the Owyhee Canyonlands National Monument, driving the ranchers from their land and their way of life. You have to wonder. What does Bill Clinton care about?


Gretchen Randall and Tom Randall are environmental consultants with Winningreen, LLC in Chicago, Illinois. 


1 “Notice of Field manager’s Proposed Decision,” Bureau of Land Management, Boise, Idaho, February 9, 2000.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 43 USC Part 1752 (g) sets forth stringent requirements for cancellation of grazing permits but since the BLM’s action was a modification of use and not a cancellation, this law does not apply.
5 Such orders are permitted under Regulation 43 CFR Part 4160.3. The rule also orders a two year stay of a decision while the appeal is in progress.
6 Settlement agreement between the three families and the BLM, submitted to the IBLA Administrative Judge on October 134, 1989.
7 Contemporary notes of the three families and Dr. Chad Gibson, a grazing consultant for Range Resources in Wilder, Idaho.
8 Ibid.
9 Contemporary notes of the three families, confirmed by John Fend, a field manager with the BLM at that time.
10 “Notice of Field Manager’s Proposed Decision.”
11 Records of meeting between Dr. Chad Gibson and BLM field officers, January 12, 2000.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.