Working on the BLM’s Western Rivers and Streams Assessment Project all summer has taught me a lot about the multi-use and inter-agency management of the public lands and waters of the United States. Growing up in New England, where much of the land has been subdivided and privatized for centuries, I had never quite grasped the vastness of the public land holdings in many of the Western states; Nevada for example is 87% BLM land. Management of such enormous tracts of land is challenging in the most simple situations. Throw landscape scale diversity and multiple use demands from local stakeholders and landowners, and management is often an unwieldy process that is placed on an insufficiently sized team of already overworked federal land managers, wildlife biologists, geologists, permitters, and hydrologists.
The scientists and policy makers that work to manage the public lands and waters of our country play a game of compromise and balance every day. Grazing, mining, oil and gas development, and logging are all activities that must be evaluated and considered when making management decisions. Although these uses for the land are important, they must be paired with conservation and restoration to ensure that our land and waters continue to provide services such as a clean drinking supply, wildlife habitat, and recreational use. This summer I’ve had the opportunity to sample a diverse array of rivers across five states spanning several ecosystems. From cattle grazing in the plains of South Dakota, to oil exploration along the White River in Utah, I have seen a plethora of landuse practices that have altered stream health and the broader landscape. Often these activities impart minimal damage to the natural ecosystem, yet in some circumstances degradation is inevitable and profound.
My final hitch of the summer brought me to the San Juan mountains of Colorado, where mining has been a staple industry for over one hundred and fifty years. The ore rich rock created a culture dependent on an industry that, when unpoliced, often severely degrades the water quality of nearby streams. The release of loose tailings often containing heavy metals and the leaching of sulfuric acid into streams or groundwater has decreased considerably since environmental protection laws were passed in the 1970s (such as NEPA and the Superfund legislation). Additionally, the diversification of the Colorado economy towards tourism has helped reduce water quality concerns in recent years. These two industries often juxtapose each other and are great examples of the balancing act that land mangers must play when considering the needs and wants of different stakeholders.
Last week, when a dam retaining heavy metal laced tailings failed at an old gold mine outside of Silverton, CO, the dangers of multi-use landscape management was brought to the forefront. The spill, which poured over three million gallons of tailings into the Animas River is a tragedy that will require inter-agency management and collaboration with local stakeholders to manage the aftermath and mitigate the effects this catastrophe has had and will continue to have on the recreation, agriculture, and fisheries in the area. In the end, it will be time, and the healing power of nature that will be able to right the equilibrium that was thrown off balance. Walking through Durango and seeing the toxic yellow waters of the river as ran its way through town was a sobering moment. Equally as sobering was sampling a section of the Animas upstream of the accident, and witnessing the pristine mountain fed river for what it should be, yet knowing that a few miles downstream the river will not be the same for over thirty years.
Although I believe that there could be greater oversight and less exploitation of public land and waters in the US, in the end the reality is that they must be managed for multiple uses. It is the goals and ideals that future managers exact that will determine whether catastrophes like the Animas become more common, or if our nation’s resources are sustained for years to come. As a potential future watershed manager I sincerely hope it is the latter. This summer has showed me a diverse and beautiful array of river systems throughout the Western States. I have met a wide assortment of stakeholders from different economic, political, and social backgrounds than myself. What has continued to amaze me is that most people, from the rancher moving hundreds of cattle, to the trout fly fisherman, value and connect to their land and their stream in some way or another. No one wants polluted drinking water or fish kills, they just want a livelihood. Striking the balance between multiple use and conservation is a tricky one, but not an impossible one. The sampling that I’ve been doing these past few months will hopefully better inform managers to the science and health of western waters, and ideally aid in collaborative management actions that create a more sustainable landscape.