Politics & Government

Talks on Carrizo Plain monument plan calm

WASHINGTON -- When an advisory committee met to approve the framework for a Carrizo Plain National Monument management plan, the panel's chairman, Neil Havlik, was surprised that there was no bickering over cattle grazing.

"It was surprisingly low key," Havlik said of the daylong meeting. His day job is natural resources manager for the city of San Luis Obispo.

That's how much things have changed in the two years since the monument's former manager, Marlene Braun, killed herself while in the midst of a bitter dispute with the her boss at the Bureau of Land Management.

The monument was created by President Clinton just hours before he left office. Its 250,000 acres in southeastern San Luis Obispo County are the state's last remaining expanse of indigenous grasslands in the state.

Grazing was an accelerant in the fiery relationship between Braun and the BLM's Bakersfield former field manager, Ron Huntsinger.

Now, the polarizing politics of grazing have faded.

"I don't use the G word anymore," said Tom Maloney of The Nature Conservancy, a partner with the BLM and the state in the national monument. "Grazing has become 'vegetation management tool.' "

It's not just the nomenclature that has changed.

Huntsinger has been replaced by Tim Smith, who is respected for his skills at building partnerships. Johna Hurl, who worked as Braun's assistant, has moved into Braun's job.

But Braun, and the destructive forces that also killed the first effort to writing a management plan for the 7-year-old monument, are not forgotten.

"The events surrounding the earlier thing have chastened everyone," said Havlik. "The ugliness, the personality conflicts -- no one wants to see that again."

Some believe that out of the ruins of two years ago can grow a model management plan.

The framework agreed upon Saturday at an eight-hour marathon meeting at the Carissa Plain Elementary School defines the range of options for the management plan that will now be fleshed out in detail.

Havlik said the staff hope to have a draft plan completed and publicly circulated by late January, when the task of public meetings and comment periods begins anew. Another big change this time around is that after Braun's death, the BLM agreed to do a more intensive environmental impact statement rather than a simpler environmental assessment.

There are many tough decisions ahead. When it comes to grazing, for example, the framework sets out a range of options that swing widely from elimination to more closely focusing it on controlling the spread of nonnative grasses and weeds. Among the ideas is to modify the grazing leases to give the BLM more flexibility, Havlik said. It will be a challenge for staff to flesh out how that might work, he said, but the idea is to shape its use depending on such factors as rainfall and the habitat the natural grasslands provide.

Havlik said, for example, that prong horned antelope do better raising their young in taller grasses, and where they range, grazing might be limited. In other areas, where nonnative plants are spreading, grazing would be a useful control.

"I don't think we want to preclude grazing," Havlik said. "In wet years, we may want to use it to reduce thick thatch levels or reduce fire hazards."