The Environmental Protection Agency recently recognized Corporation for the Northern Rockies in a report to Congress entitled Innovative Community Projects Supported by EPA Grants.

"We're delighted because it shows that EPA understands that sustainable management of ranch lands can improve the quality of our large western landscapes and rural communities," said Lill Erickson, CNR's executive director. CNR is a Livingston-based sustainable community development nonprofit serving Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Supported by members, donors and grants, it received a $99,335 EPA grant in June of 1999 to fund its Sustainable Ranch Lands Project. Although EPA funded a total of 179 projects that year, it only featured 13 projects in its October report to Congress.

CNR's Sustainable Ranch Lands Project, which includes a time-controlled grazing trial near Blackfoot, Idaho, involves nine ranchers in the Eastern Idaho Grazing Association. The overall goal of the project is to create a transferable model of sustainable ranching that can be adopted by other ranchers in the Northern Rockies. CNR defines sustainable ranching as a management approach that improves ecological, economic and community conditions.

So far, indications from the field are good. Participating ranchers have used time-controlled grazing to improve the health of range lands and riparian areas, even during times of drought. This outcome contrasts starkly with conventional practices.

Traditionally, ranchers have used season-long grazing. With this method cattle forage unsupervised, often loitering in fragile streambeds, destroying habitat and degrading water quality. Decades of this practice resulted in widespread ecological damage-and public outrage.

Time controlled grazing lets ranchers manage range land in much the same way that buffalo used it a hundred years ago. Herders skilled in grass management gather cattle into a large herd and move it daily. This prevents overgrazing of range lands and stream banks.

"The EPA grant has allowed us to use herders to learn some things about the migrating habits of the cattle on upland areas. It has also been critical, in this drought year, to use the herders to move the cattle off the riparian (streamside) areas on public land and place them on private lands during part of the heat of the summer, to keep them from damaging the creeks. With the use of herders, we have been able to keep the cattle moved up and away from the stream banks in critical watershed areas," said Ken Wixom, President of the Eastern Idaho Grazing Association.

Aside from specific animal and forage management approaches, such as combining herds to be moved regularly as a single unit, the Sustainable
Ranch Lands Project also includes a range health monitoring system that passed EPA's rigorous quality assurance standards. This allows ranchers to monitor the health of their uplands and streamsides-and to adjust management, depending on monitoring results.

The project also includes training and support for financial monitoring that allows ranchers to see how various management changes not only improve ecosystem conditions but also increase economic viability.

Economic improvements are significant. Some participating ranchers have cut their production costs by 15 percent, primarily through reducing the use of Fossil fuels, fertilizers, herbicides and other chemicals. Project coordinators have also helped the ranchers find and secure relationships with niche markets for natural meats. This allows them to step outside the commodities market, with its fluctuating prices, to secure a steady premium.

"The environmental results of the project are heartening," said Erickson.

"They show that sustainable ranching can actually restore damaged ecosystems. But it's the economic benefits from this approach that will help people stay in ranching and avoid subdividing their land to make ends meet," said Erickson. "Some conventional ranching has been hard on the land, but subdivisions are irreversible. Sustainable ranching helps us maintain open space and the integrity of our small rural communities."

For more a full report of the EPA's report to Congress and for more information about CNR, please visit communities/.

Corporation for the Northern Rockies communities/