Two-Pronged Approach

Two powerful ranching families and their cronies conspire in secret to determine the fate of endangered antelope.

When it comes to dodging tough responsibilities, nothing suits public officials better than good, old-fashioned meetings. Sit-downs, round-tables, study sessions--call them what you will, they emit a whiff of high-caliber activity, without the nit-picky requirement that anything actually be accomplished.

And if said officials want to avoid doing anything and avoid catching hell for avoiding doing anything, they close such meetings to the public. This shuts out any pesky tattle-tales, such as reporters.

Of course, to further deflect criticism they also must hire a pricey "coordinator" to orchestrate the whole affair, and to take the heat for any behind-the-scenes shenanigans. Sometimes the coordinator may even be accompanied by a "facilitator," who presumably helps facilitate coordination.

As you can see, it all gets quite complex.

Such is the dense bureaucratic thicket surrounding a devastated pronghorn antelope herd on Anderson Mesa, in the Coconino National Forest south of Flagstaff. This broad slice of alpine meadows was once home to a resplendent herd of pronghorns. Early frontiersmen reported seeing hundreds if not thousands of the fleet-footed critters in the then-verdant highlands. These mountain men also cited billowing seas of grass "belly high to a horse," according to the book Man and Wildlife in Arizona, by Goode P. Davis.

At that time, it should be noted, there were both vast antelope herds and a multitude of predators such as wolves and coyotes. What there wasn't much of in those days was cattle.

Later, even into the 1950s, Anderson Mesa's antelope still numbered in the thousands, according to Arizona Game and Fish reports.

Today, the antelope herd numbers less than 150.

But there are plenty of cattle on the mesa's vast expanses. Members of the Arizona Wildlife Federation consider this balance a tad awry. Because of such sentiment, they've been steadily threatening a lawsuit against Coconino Forest officials, whom they claim are sitting on their taxpayer-funded duffs while the Anderson Mesa herd is sacrificed to cattle overgrazing.

On the other side of this all-too-familiar fence are the Metzger and Prosser families, owners of the Flying M and Bar T Bar ranches, respectively. The ranches get cheap grazing rent on Anderson Mesa.

Like most ranchers in Arizona, the families exert far more influence in the area than their measly contribution to the economy might suggest.

Why is this so? According to Martin Taylor, a biologist with the Center for Biodiversity, ranchers have attained "an aristocratic status" in Arizona. And beyond their traditional clout drenched in Western mythology, they also have a plethora of pals in the Arizona Legislature, on the Game and Fish Commission and in the governor's office.

But that's another story.

In Northern Arizona, much of the Prosser-Metzger power is exerted through a group called the Diablo Trust. A sprawling entourage consisting of everyone from socialists to rednecks, the trust often finds ways to characterize ranching as the bedrock of Western life. Critics say the trust is also adept at muddying the biological waters, often obfuscating ranching's role in wildlife declines.

Still, anyone with half a cortex knows that cattle grazing is killing off Anderson Mesa's antelope. It's not that the dim, domestic ungulates compete with their wild brethren for food, argue AWF biologists. Rather, cows nibble vegetation to the nub, depriving newborn antelopes of precious ground cover wherein to hide. In addition, most cattle fencing restricts antelope movement.

Obviously, the Prossers and Metzgers are none too pleased with the AWF's interpretation of events. Nor is this view overly popular with Coconino Forest officials, who will apparently do darned near anything to avoid being caught in a crossfire between powerful ranchers and the AWF's legal sharpshooters.

Actions by Arizona Game and Fish staffers are no more commendable. Instead of pushing the Forest Service to restore antelope habitat to some semblance of health, they've primarily responded to herd declines by the intermittent aerial shooting of predators. Since wolves were driven from the region long ago, coyotes remain as the prime predatorial target.

This circumstance is clearly a bit surreal. But as Hunter S. Thompson once quipped, when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. And few are more professional than Melinda Smith, an Albuquerque-based coordinator hired by U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution, and paid by the Coconino National Forest. Ostensibly, her task was to bring ranchers and wildlife activists together to chew over problems on Anderson Mesa, and hopefully avoid an AWF lawsuit.

Others say Smith's job was simply a gussied-up way of letting Coconino officials off the hook. For her efforts, the coordinator was awarded $5,500 in taxpayer money, and she presided over meetings on July 15 and 16 in Flagstaff's Sinaugua High School.

Attending were a contingent known in fashionable parlance as "stakeholders"--Forest Service and Arizona Game and Fish staffers, AWF representatives, a few folks from the Antelope Foundation, and members of the Diablo Trust. The only people not invited to this publicly funded meeting about public lands were ordinary citizens, and reporters.

When questioned about exclusion of the media in particular, Smith responded with a flurry of explanations that soon devolved into outright lies. First, she told the Tucson Weekly that she herself had advised closing the meeting to reporters, because she didn't want participants "grand-standing" for the press. "I suggested for this first meeting that there be no press involved," she said, "because of the conflicts involved and the way that the press has been involved in the past." All the participants "have agreed to that ground rule," Smith said.

Apparently, in the past the press has been involved in reporting news to the public about negotiations concerning public lands.

Unfortunately, her remark also marked lie number one for Smith, who failed to mention that the AWF had objected to secreting the meeting away from public scrutiny.

In a later phone call, Smith then told a Tucson Weekly reporter that the press would be excluded because "Arizona Game and Fish has decided that it does not 'require' that the press be at this meeting."

Lie number two.

"Did not require?" asked a rather incredulous Jim Burton, assistant AGF director, when told about Smith's remark. Burton said the meeting, originally to be held in AGF offices in Flagstaff, was moved under advice from the Arizona Attorney General's office. "I made them move the meeting from my property, because I didn't want a situation that might not be very pleasant for either the media or the Game and Fish Department if someone showed up and wanted in.

"From a Game and Fish perspective, we were told that there were members of the group who would not participate if the press was there. But that was not the Game and Fish Department's position."

The media did show up at Sinagua High School on Sunday, July 15, in the form of one reporter from the Tucson Weekly, and two from Flagstaff's Arizona Daily Sun.

As some 40 "stakeholders" milled about chatting with these journalists, Smith came unglued. If reporters refused to leave, she said, "I will call the police ... or we'll cancel the meeting."

Not wishing to land in the pokey simply for doing their job, the reporters eventually made an exit. But this wasn't just a defeat for a few muckrakers. Instead, it reveals a land planning process--and ranching power--running roughshod over public concerns.

Kirk Emerson, director of the U.S. Institute for Conflict Resolution in Tucson said she wouldn't "want to second guess" Smith's actions surrounding the July 15 meeting, or comment on the coordinator's repeated lies to reporters.

Either way, these types of closed meetings--common in western states, where ranchers and other private business interests have gained increasing leverage in public land policy-making--do not bode well for wild spaces, says Sandy Bahr, spokeswoman for the Sierra Club in Arizona.

"Limiting the public's participation does not serve the public's interest--cutting deals behind closed doors is not how we should be working to manage wildlife or anything else for that matter," Bahr says. "It's ironic that we pass laws for open public processes and then the agencies work to find ways around them in the name of 'involving the stakeholders.'"

Coconino Forest officials, who hold ultimate responsibility for the July 15 fiasco, were as defensive as cornered polecats when asked about the secretive gathering. "We just had a meeting with staff in our office this morning," said Forest Supervisor Jim Golden, when contacted by the Tucson Weekly. "Does that mean that we were supposed to invite the media?"

Rodger Zanotto, Coconino's point man on land management, was more blunt--after first lecturing a Weekly reporter on how "you guys like to twist things around."

Call it teaching by example: The meeting "may have a lot to do with public lands, but there's a lot to do with private lands, too," Zanotto said. "And this is not a public lands issue."

Say what?

Apparently, to Zanotto, private meetings paid for by taxpayers to discuss public lands is just hunky-dory with him. "This was not anything that the public needed to know," he said.

It's awfully hard to do much twisting with official arrogance such as that.

Still, the antelope crisis is destined to remain a thorny issue, so stay tuned as Golden, Zanotto and company schedule more meetings in the future.

Not that you'll be invited of course. After all, dear reader, you're just the public. What do you need to know about your public lands?

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