Congressional researchers say the U.S. Forest Service should look to an unusual role model as it tries to become more self-sufficient and better protect land and wildlife.
That role model is the Deseret Land and Livestock Ranch, operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.The U.S. General Accounting Office, a research arm of Congress, said the 201,000-acre ranch near Woodruff, Rich County, has innovative grazing, hunting and management plans that could enhance Forest Service revenue and land protection if copied.
That's according to a report for House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich, R-Ohio, who complains that subsidies for the Forest Service are increasing too much.
The GAO didn't look just at the LDS ranch. It also looked for lessons that could be learned from selected state park systems, Indian tribal lands, areas owned by environmental groups and even a private forest owned by International Paper.
While the report said lessons can be learned from all of them, Deseret, like the Forest Service, was heavily subsidized in recent years. But it turned that around, became self-sufficient and did so while taking better care of the land, the GAO said.
A previous owner of the ranch was losing $500,000 a year on it as late as 1978, the GAO said. It then hired a new manager who was told he must end subsidies. He received more management flexibility to do so.
The GAO said when the ranch was sold in 1983 to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it also wanted self-sufficiency and clearly defined its mission as "to maximize profit while improving the resources" and to be "part of the community and an ensign of the church."
It established five-year plans, set annual goals and devised clear accountability objectives, the GAO said. It also gives employees bonuses of up to 10 percent of their annual salary if they achieve profit and/or production goals
Now, with such incentives, the GAO said, "The ranch's annual revenue covers both operating and capital costs, including $280,000 a year paid to the church to repay land-acquisition costs."
But in the Forest Service, the GAO noted, "Generating revenue and reducing costs are not mission priorities." Subsidies are increasing as the service shifts more effort into activities that produce little revenue, such as wilderness protection.
The report also said accountability in the Forest Service is murky, and little flexibility in management is allowed.
One way the LDS ranch turned things around was by managing "big game and other wildlife as a profitable resource rather than as a cost of doing business," the GAO said.
That includes charging high access fees for some types of hunting on its land - up to $8,500 per hunter for guided bull elk expeditions. Some other hunting is still allowed free of charge.
For example, the GAO said the ranch offers 15 percent of its expensive bull elk and buck deer permits free to the public through a drawing.
"Thus, for the normal $35 state license fee, the selected hunters can be part of a guided five-day hunt that includes food and all of the other amenities afforded to hunters paying up to $8,500," the GAO said.
The report said revenue from such wildlife programs was about $342,000 in 1997. Hunting often brings in more than the ranch's cattle operations, depending on the price of beef. So the ranch takes extra care to preserve wildlife, including feeding it in severe winters.
Meanwhile, the GAO said the Forest Service historically has left all hunting programs on its lands to the states and receives little or no money from them.
The GAO said the LDS ranch also uses an innovative grazing technique. It limits the length of time that cattle are allowed to graze an area and moves them along fenced pastures instead of allowing them to graze on open rangeland.
The GAO says that approach allows long periods of rest and recovery for plants and has improved rangeland while the ranch increased the number of mother cows by 85 percent since 1983. The number of weaned calves increased by 103 percent.
Such methods are generally not used on Forest Service grazing lands.
The GAO said the ranch also made efforts to cut costs, including reducing the number of its full-time employees and using contractors for security, constructing fences and operating heavy equipment.
Deseret also capitalizes on volunteer labor from church and youth groups to improve the ranch and its lands, an approach that the Forest Service may be able to use to improve its efforts.