USFS seeks photos to document range conditions

Everyone at some point has monitored something in their life. When you were a kid, you probably monitored the candy bowl closely. As an adult, you monitor your checking account to avoid overdrafts and any fraudulent charges. You do this by comparing the charges on your statement at the end of the month with the record in your checkbook.
Now imagine doing this without the bank record, all you get from the bank is an ending balance. You have nothing to compare your records to, just a number at the end of the month. That number can give you an indication of your bank account’s health but it can’t tell you what you spent your money on or what checks have not cleared.
Monitoring a pasture, or in this case a grazing allotment, is not much different. It is good to have a record of credits and debits tied to the ground. Any range specialist who is familiar with an area should be able to visit a site and describe the basic condition of the site, however, this is nothing more than a quick “balance at the end of the month.” In order to predict the future ecological condition, past conditions and actual uses of that area need to be known.
Working for the Forest Service as a range specialist has given me the opportunity to work with local livestock grazing permittees who utilize federal ground to make a living. At some point in every conversation I am told by the permittee about how it was before. I wouldn’t be much of a range guy if I didn’t perk up a little bit. I enjoy hearing about past management methods which may or may not have worked and what their views of a particular area may be. As wonderful at that is, a mere conversation or verbal description is not documentation, whereas simple photos with a description would be.
Over the past few years and after reviewing hundreds of photographs taken by previous range specialists here on the Blanco Ranger District, it has become clear that our records are not as complete as they could be. I only have one side of the story and am missing the permittees’ views. There are multiple reasons for documenting the permittees’ stories.
First, it increases the amount of documentation about an area, which from the Forest Service’s perspective is great. Second, it allows the permittees’ points of view to document the historical record of the allotment, which is good for the permittee. Third, when the permittee and Forest Service work together we share each other’s points of view and this in turn increases awareness of common goals, good for everyone.
For the past two grazing seasons, I have been working with individual permittees to utilize a monitoring kit. These kits were purchased by the Forest Service to be used by the permittee. Each kit contains a digital camera, GPS, compass and clipboard. Typically, the permittee can check out the kit and keep it for a few weeks, taking pictures, noting the GPS location and taking notes on their allotment. In the fall, when the animals are brought home, I work with the permittee to organize and label the photos and notes.
The first permittee to tackle this program was Brent Smith of Smith Ranches. With some simple coaching Brent took to the field with the tools from the kit and brought back a dozen or so photos from the allotment, each with an accompanying description and GPS location.
In the fall when I sat down with him, not only did I get to hear his story, I could see it too. Several of the photos were of the Forest Service weed crews treating an infestation on his allotment. Other photos show the heights of the grass in a “rested” pasture for that season.
One photo which caught my eye was a short stretch of riparian area, in which I could clearly see where the willows had grown to the water’s edge and a healthy stand of Carex and Sedge species made up the opposing bank. Brent had documented a portion of the allotment that I would not see on a typical inspection and it was done through his eyes and with his words.
Sitting at the table looking through the photos together, we were able to gain insight into each other’s perspective of resource conditions.
When I asked Brent for his thoughts on this subject, he responded with, “This is something we all should have been aware of years ago in order to monitor ourselves. I kick myself for not taking photos when I was a kid to compare to now.”
Smith Ranches has since been followed by the LK Ranch and Theos Swallow Fork Ranch in the permittee monitoring program. In a recent conversation with the owner of Marvine Ranch, I learned that their cowboys have been taking photos of Marvine’s allotments for several years. I was very excited to hear this and encouraged him to bring a copy of the photos to the office and add them to the official allotment file. I hope that in time, other photos will be found in personal collections which can tie a previous resource condition to current one, even if that photo was taken by a proud rancher showing off their calf crop and it inadvertently captured a river crossing or stream bank. I am eager to look at any photo in hopes of viewing a clip from the past.
Ten years from now, whether or not I am still here, those photos will aid in explaining the land managers “bank statement” which leads us to an overall understanding of the “account balance” resulting from all of our hard work.
Last fall I was able to purchase two more monitoring kits with the anticipation of adding more permittees to the “monitorer” list. The best time to start monitoring was 10 years ago, the next best time is now.

By Troy Osborn

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