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Healthy Streams

Steve Leonard used to be a wildlife and fish biologist
with an interest in creeks. Now he’s a creek
person interested in wildlife and fish.

Story & photos © Scott Staats

The management of riparian areas became a big issue approximately 20 years ago. That issue still goes on today. Covering only two percent of the land base, these streamside areas provide tremendous community benefits in the form of wildlife, grazing, recreation, fisheries and other beneficial uses, as well as being indicators of watershed health.
“When I see a stream in degraded condition, I see a loss of money for the rancher,” said Steve Leonard, an ecologist and grazing management specialist for the National Riparian Service Team. “Streams irrigate themselves, fertilize themselves and they are high producing areas. If they are not producing the kind of vegetation for bank stability, they are also not providing forage. If the cows are staying down on the stream, then they are not properly utilizing the uplands. The rancher is paying for the area of uplands, whether in taxes or just the cost of operating the land. When I see grass along a stream so short that the cows are literally waiting for it to grow, the rancher is not making gains on the creek either.”
“I love working with the Riparian Team because they are all dedicated to proper and rational resource management,” said Dr. John Buckhouse, professor of watershed management and rangeland resources at Oregon State University. He’s talking about Steve Leonard, left, and team leader Wayne Elmore, below.
Leonard goes on to explain that, at certain times of the year, cows can actually gain less weight if only eating riparian vegetation. He compares it to eating watermelon; you may feel full, but you won’t gain any weight from it. As a ranch manager in the past, he said he ran about 30 head of cows across portable scales after grazing in a riparian pasture in early summer and actually got less gain from the riparian area than from the uplands. The grass on the uplands has more nutrition and less water.

Some streams are limited in their flow late in the season. With a healthy stream, there is more of a
sustainable flow for producing vegetation and for livestock to drink. In most cases, there’s not a big cost in maintaining a healthy riparian area.

Before coming to work for the Bureau of Land Management, he spent time as a ranch manager in northern Colorado. He also worked on ranches in southern New Mexico all through high school. His ability to effectively communicate his expertise to diverse groups has earned him respect throughout the West and beyond. He has been sharing his 28 years of range and riparian experience with many groups over the years.

“Steve has a background that may never be duplicated,” said Wayne Elmore, the team’s leader and one of the top stream experts in the country. As a member of a National Soil and Range Team, Leonard has conducted Ecological Site Inventories on over 11 million acres of rangeland in the West. “He’s got a tremendous experience base, plus he’s a great student of ecology,” Elmore said. “No matter what group he is addressing, he can find a way to get the ideas across to them.”

According to Denis Hall, president of the environmental group High Country Citizen’s Alliance in Crested Butte, Colo., “Steve is just as comfortable talking to a group of ranchers from the back of a horse as he is addressing a group of scientists or environmentalists in a formal setting.”

Mary Thoman and her family operate a large ranch in southwestern Wyoming. “Steve goes out of his way to give a non-biased, scientific view of what’s happening on the land,” said Thoman “He is open and honest in presenting his ideas. When out in the field he takes people aside and asks about their concerns and in the end comes up with alternatives that everybody can agree on.”

Patrick Lucey is an aquatic ecologist with Aqua-Tex Consulting in British Columbia, Canada where Leonard’s team has taught proper grazing techniques in Canada as well as Mexico. “If any human being embodies the essence of cooperation, collaboration and integration,” Lucey says, “then Steve Leonard is the consummate diplomat.”

On March 20, 1996, the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service, in partnership with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, agreed on a plan to address the proper management and restoration of riparian areas in the western United States. As part of this effort, the National Riparian Service Team (NRST), headed by BLM riparian specialist Wayne Elmore, was formed. The team conducts program review, consulting, technology transfer and teaching. Everywhere they go, they find a growing awareness that the best long-term solutions are developed locally by the people most affected by success or failure. One of the most important things the Riparian Team does is to involve everyone concerned with streams and grazing. Their mission statement is “Healthy streams through bringing people together.”

Leonard has seen many successes in range management in his career. He worked with individual ranchers in the southwest when the first environmental impact statements were being developed, assisting them with the development of allotment management plans. Some ranchers would have taken severe cuts in cattle numbers, but by implementing changes in management on their own, many times cuts were avoided.

During presentations, Leonard shows before and after pictures of riparian restoration from all over the West as a way to help illustrate what can be accomplished through proper grazing. He’ll show slides of an area of livestock exclusion and an area grazed properly and the audience usually can’t tell the difference.

“Sometimes reducing numbers in riparian areas doesn’t do a darn thing except concentrate a problem into a smaller area,” Leonard said. “If we can show, through riparian restoration, that we can improve the condition of the stream while at the same time increase the carrying capacity for that piece of land, then tell me why that isn’t a win-win situation for everybody?”

Leonard believes the most important people out there are the ones moving the cows. “They understand the needs of the cows as well as the plants,” he said. “They can have more impact on proper grazing than all the agencies and landowners combined.”

The secret lies in understanding the type of riparian area being managed and then adjusting the frequency, timing, intensity and duration of grazing for that specific system.

As for cooperative work in range management, Leonard has seen a vast improvement. “I’ve seen more results in the last few years since people have started talking about collaborative restoration than I have in all the years before that.”

The NRST has been successful in bringing to the table the interested parties with different backgrounds and values. “We try to show people what’s in it for them,” said Leonard. “There is something in restoration for everyone involved.”

The team teaches the Proper Functioning Condition (PFC) assessment method to help accomplish their goals. “PFC is the tool that we use to build a common vocabulary,” said Elmore. “We have people temporarily set their values aside and look at the physical attributes in a stream that produce and sustain those values over time. There are no degrees of sustainability in an ecosystem, it’s either sustainable or it’s not.” He stresses that PFC is not a desired condition, it’s a building block for management.

A stream that is in proper functioning condition can usually withstand a moderate (25-30 year) event and maintain its integrity. “Riparian areas are very resilient,” Elmore explained, “but we have to give them a chance to recover. All of this adds up to keeping water on the land longer. We hope to accomplish this on a large scale by increasing the number of people involved in working together to restore their watersheds. There’s no ownership in legislated management but there is in cooperative restoration.”

Leonard said it would be interesting to look at the cost of an average lawsuit involving public lands grazing management, whether it is litigation instituted by a rancher or environmental group against a decision by BLM or the Forest Service. “If we took that money and put it towards promoting good management, it would not only benefit the environment but also the ranching economy.”

Leonard also has a concern with the change in demographics of the land. “I see the future of the ranching industry in the West being dependent upon having good resource conditions, including streams, and good viable economic ranch operations,” he said. “I know we can have both because I have seen it time and time again. But until we make it the norm instead of the apparent exception, politics is going to start playing a bigger role in resource management.”

Ranchers, Leonard suggests, can start taking the bull by the horns now with proper riparian management or have someone force them to do it later on. Taking advantage of wildlife on the range can be turned into alternative ranch income, he explained. Some ranches make as much money or more from hunting, fishing and birdwatching as they do from grazing. As the population in the West grows, this may be a consideration for some ranchers. People are willing to pay for a quality experience; some will even pay to do ranch work to experience what it’s like to live and work there.

“By maintaining healthy streams, you maintain all your options for the future,” Leonard said. “It’s hard to say what you might want to do with the land in 10 years.”

Oregon rancher Dick Nelson has worked with NRST. “Wayne’s team is spreading the word about the good management that is happening on public and private lands throughout the West,” Nelson said. Through some simple changes, the rancher can now graze more cows on his allotment, showing increased gains and reduced hay bills, all of which has improved his bottom line. At the same time there has been a vast improvement in stream health.

Nelson grazes 247 head of cattle on a riparian meadow in February, March and April, then moves them to upland pastures. “The winter grazing is the economic backbone of this ranch,” Nelson said. In the past he would have to feed hay during that time. He has 22 other pastures in the allotment where cattle get water from springs, or water gaps in the fence along the creek. Riparian restoration and management have to be economical and involve the entire ranch operation to be successful.

Elmore insists that streams today are in better shape than they were 100 years ago, but many are still a long way from functioning properly. “The outlook for the future is brighter than it has ever been,” he says, “but it will take a critical mass of people working at the local level with the same types of objectives and thought processes to cause significant improvement in the nation’s streams.”

Most people want instant gratification and expect results tomorrow, but bringing steams back into proper functioning condition takes time. Recovery is dependent on many factors and is often determined by the way current management is able to take advantage of the effects of droughts and floods.

Twenty years ago Elmore was convinced that all the agencies had to do was tell people what the answer was and they would change. “I used to believe it was 70 percent science and 30 percent knowing how to work with people,” he said. “Now I believe it’s the other way around. I used to be a wildlife and fish biologist with an interest in creeks, now I’m a creek person interested in wildlife and fish.”

Elmore reminds us that a lot has been learned about riparian areas in the last 10 to 15 years and claims that collectively we know how to “fix the creeks.” It’s just a matter of working together and applying the knowledge that will make the lasting changes to the land. Elmore has walked over 2,500 miles of streams in his career. He often quotes Oregon rancher Doc Hatfield who said, “Creeks don’t know the difference in ownerships, only in management.” He adds that streams don’t just run through properties, they connect properties and we need to work on entire systems to be successful.

His father gave him these words of wisdom, which Elmore has lived by: “When you start working with people, you just remember they are going to want to know how much you care before they ever care about how much you know.”

Scott Staats is a freelance writer from Prineville, Ore.

The National Riparian Service Team

The National Riparian Service Team is comprised of six full-time members and many part-time members. Wayne Elmore heads up the team. Steve Leonard is the ecologist and grazing management specialist. Ron Wiley is the team’s fisheries biologist. Susan Holtzman is the team coordinator. Lisa Lewis is the soil scientist. Janice Staats is the team’s hydrologist. Elmore, Leonard and Wiley are BLM employees, while Holtzman, Lewis and Staats are Forest Service employees.

Part-time members are from BLM, U.S. Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service. They include experts in range, wildlife and fisheries biology, hydrology, ecology, botany, soils, bioengineering and public affairs.

The NRST has helped establish cadres in 11 western U.S. states and one in Canada to assist in accomplishing their goals at the local level. Several mid-western and eastern states are also interested in the accelerated riparian restoration approach and are looking into setting up cadres. The cadres include ranchers, environmentalists, interested public, and state and federal agency people.

To contact the National Riparian Service Team or one of the cadres, contact Susan Holtzman at 503-808-2987.


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last page update: 04.03.05