HISTORY: 1918 — ‘Range war’ heats up

“Stockmen are all opposed to the late grazing order,” a front-page headline in the Feb. 8, 1918, Blue Mountain Eagle announced as a long-simmering dispute over grazing on public lands in Grant County boiled over again.

“The great stock industry of Grant County will unite in a protest against the unjust and unreasonable ruling made recently by the District Forester at Portland,” the article reported.

When the Malheur National Forest was created out of forest preserves in 1907, the “range war” posed the first major challenge for forest managers.

Meetings had been held in Canyon City in 1906 to establish grazing districts and a range permit system, but many stockmen and other locals expressed concern about increased government regulation.

A negotiated settlement eased conflicts, but livestock numbers dramatically fell from the estimated 340,000 sheep and 30,000 cattle grazing on the Malheur forest in 1906. Now stockmen were facing a ruling that no livestock could be released on public lands until after May 15.

Canyon City attorney J.E. Marks helped the Grant County Stockgrowers Association draft a formal protest. The letter noted that “it has been the necessary custom” for ranchers to turn their stock out on public lands adjacent to their property as early as possible in order to protect their pastures.

The letter agreed that some early grazing harmed public lands, “but such damage is not so great.” Furthermore, ranchers faced demands from the federal government to increase food production because of the war, the letter noted.

In March, the Eagle declared that now was a critical time for the ranchers of Grant County. Grazing fees were raised in 1917, and now early grazing was prohibited on public lands.

“Forest officials show no spirit to cooperate but would enforce an unreasonable ruling with autocratic authority on the part of the Forest Service agents,” the paper said.

Two Forest Service officials traveled to John Day from Portland to address the issue. The Eagle characterized Deputy Supervisor L.E. McDaniels as a “grass professor” and “high brow apostle of theoretical grass” who didn’t mince words and told ranchers to rotate their grazing lands. The Eagle noted that the agency had a point.

“From a pen and ink standpoint, the Forest Service is right, for no one will dispute the fact that if stock are kept off the range there will be more grass,” the paper said.

Ranchers wanted to know where in a wartime economy they would find the men to herd cattle and build fences, while the Eagle noted positive changes to public lands.

“The range is better now than it has ever been in recent years and is improving under present conditions,” the newspaper said.

Some give and take became evident by early March as Bear Valley ranchers reached an agreement with the Forest Service to begin grazing April 15.

The Forest Service announced a larger negotiated settlement two weeks later, ruling that each district had conditions peculiar to it. Ranchers in John Day, Mt. Vernon, Crane, Prairie City and Flag Prairie would be allowed to use public lands as early as May 1, while others could gain access by April 15.

“Everything is now satisfactory, and peace, harmony and good will prevails,” the Eagle reported. “All of the local stock organizations are now vital factors, and the county organization is supported by all of the local bodies. Hereafter there will be no difficulty with the administrative officers, for they can deal with the county organization and thus avoid friction.”

Assistant Forester Thomas MacKenzie wrote to the Eagle in April to explain that cattle numbers could be increased on public rangeland when handled properly.

“It is believed the series of meetings recently held has cleared up a good deal of misunderstanding, and the stockmen have a better idea of what the Forest Service is trying to accomplish on the Malheur,” he said.

MacKenzie noted that 53,000 more cattle were grazing in Oregon in 1917 than three years earlier — and on a smaller area.

Ranchers, however, experienced lean times in the 1920s, as livestock permits were reduced when damage to rangeland became evident. At the same time that restrictions increased, fees also went up.

By 1937, the Malheur forest issued permits for 54,000 sheep, an 84 percent decline from 1906, and 20,000 cattle, a 33 percent decline from 1906.

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