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Rangeland Health: New Methods to Classify, Inventory, and Monitor Rangelands Executive Summary The United States has about 312 million hectares (770 million acres) of rangelands, from the wet grasslands of Florida to the desert shrub ecosystems of Wyoming and from the high mountain meadows of Utah to the desert floor of California. These diverse ecosystems produce an equally diverse array of tangible and intangible products. Commodities, such as forage for livestock, wildlife habitat, water, minerals, energy, recreational opportunities, some wood products, and plant and animal genes, are important economic goods. Rangelands also produce intangible products such as natural beauty and wilderness that satisfy important societal values and that can be as economically important as more tangible commodities. More than half of these rangelands are privately owned, 43 percent are owned by the federal government, and the remainder are owned by state and local governments. STATE OF RANGELAND ECOSYSTEMS Rangeland degradation reduces the diversity and amount of the values and commodities that rangelands provide, and severe rangeland degradation can be irreversible. Overgrazing, drought, erosion, and other human and naturally induced stresses have caused severe degradation in the past. Although most observers agree that rangeland degradation was widespread on overgrazed and drought-plagued rangelands at the turn of the century, the present state of health of U.S. rangelands is a matter of sharp debate. Added to that debate is the confusion caused by each agency using individual agency-specific terminology to identify conditions and methods. To lessen that confusion, in this report terms will be followed by the initials of the agency to which that term is specific. Big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata)
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Rangeland Health: New Methods to Classify, Inventory, and Monitor Rangelands An example of severe water erosion, gullies on this hillside are the result of flash flooding after a torrential rainfall on overgrazed sheep range. Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture. Questions About Methods Range condition [Soil Conservation Service (SCS)] and ecological status [U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM)] assessments have been the primary methods used to evaluate rangelands and have, as recently as 1989, been interpreted as measures of rangeland health. Now, however, the scientific debate over the use of current methods to assess rangeland ecosystems has intensified, leading to disagree-
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Rangeland Health: New Methods to Classify, Inventory, and Monitor Rangelands ments over the proper interpretation of past and ongoing range condition (SCS) and ecological status (USFS and BLM) assessments. Different scientists looking at the same data have come to different conclusions about both the state of U.S. rangelands and the value of the available data. Lack of Reliable Data All existing national-level rangeland assessments suffer from the lack of current, comprehensive, and statistically representative data obtained in the field. Data collected by the same methods over time and by a sampling design that allows aggregation of the data at the national level are not available for assessing federal and nonfederal rangelands. The data that are available for assessing the status of rangelands have been obtained by many different methods and from many different sources. Need to Know is Urgent The debate and uncertainty over the health of the nation's rangelands have become inextricably bound to the debate over the best use and management of federal rangelands administered by BLM, USFS, and other agencies of the federal government. Similar concerns about the management of nonfederal rangelands have been voiced, particularly over the effect of grazing and other uses, on water quality. The fact that the available data do not allow investigators to reach definitive conclusions about the state of rangelands seriously impedes efforts to resolve the debate about proper management of the nation's federal and nonfederal rangelands. There is an urgent need to develop the methods and data collection systems at both the local and national levels to assess federal and nonfederal rangelands. The importance of the values and commodities provided by rangelands, the history of rangeland degradation, the evidence pointing to ongoing rangeland degradation, and the inadequate data on current conditions at both the local and the national levels suggest that it is unwise to neglect the nation's federal and nonfederal rangelands. PURPOSES OF NATIONAL ASSESSMENTS The choice of methods and criteria to assess rangelands entails a judgment about what information is most important to provide national policymakers, ranchers, environmentalists, and the general public about rangelands. National assessments could be designed to answer many different questions about rangelands. Moreover, deciding which information is most important depends, in large part, on the relative importance society places on the various values and commodities rangelands provide.
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Rangeland Health: New Methods to Classify, Inventory, and Monitor Rangelands The importance of providing the information needed to protect and sustain the capacity of rangeland ecosystems to provide the values and commodities desired by society has been repeatedly recognized in national legislation. SCS, USFS, and BLM have been mandated to provide the assessments of rangeland ecosystems needed to protect the quality and sustained yield of renewable resources. Providing policymakers and the public with the information needed to determine whether the capacity of rangelands to satisfy values and produce commodities is being sustained, improved, or degraded should be the primary goal of national assessments of rangelands. Standards for National Assessments Divergent views on the proper interpretation of current rangeland classification and inventory methods have confused the debate over proper rangeland management. An agreed-to standard that can be used to determine whether the capacity of these rangelands to produce commodities and satisfy values is being conserved, degraded, or improved is needed. The lack of a consistently defined standard for acceptable conditions of rangeland ecosystems is the most significant limitation to current efforts to assess rangelands. The lack of such an agreed-to standard has and continues to confuse the public, the U.S. Congress, ranchers, and range scientists themselves. DEFINITION OF RANGELAND HEALTH Rangeland health should be defined as the degree to which the integrity of the soil and the ecological processes of rangeland ecosystems are sustained. Rangelands are ecosystems, not individual organisms, and the use of the term ''health'' should not imply that simple analogies can be made between the health of an organism and the health of an ecosystem. Health, however, has been used to indicate the proper functioning of complex systems; the term is increasingly applied to ecosystems to indicate a condition in which ecological processes are functioning properly to maintain the structure, organization, and activity of the system over time. The capacity of rangelands to produce commodities and to satisfy values on a sustained basis depends on internal, self-sustaining ecological processes such as soil development, nutrient cycling, energy flow, and the structure and dynamics of plant and animal communities. Webster's Third New International Dictionary defines healthy as (1) functioning properly or normally in its vital functions, (2) free from malfunctioning of any kind, and (3) productive of good of any kind. The terms ''healthy" or "unhealthy" are most properly applied to ecosystems as an indication of
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Rangeland Health: New Methods to Classify, Inventory, and Monitor Rangelands proper or normal functioning of ecological processes resulting in the production of goods, that is, commodities or values. More specifically, the committee recommends the term "rangeland health" be used to indicate the degree of integrity of the soil and ecological processes that are most important in sustaining the capacity of rangelands to satisfy values and produce commodities. MINIMUM ECOLOGICAL STANDARD The minimum standard for rangeland management should be to prevent human-induced loss of rangeland health. Large investments of time, money, and energy are required to restore unhealthy rangelands. Even with restoration, there may be permanent loss of capacity to produce commodities and satisfy values or loss of options to use and manage those rangelands in the future. Any human-induced loss of rangeland health should be prevented. In other agricultural ecosystems, such as intensively managed croplands, the capacity to satisfy values and produce commodities is often augmented by using high levels of external inputs such as irrigation water or fertilizer, the physical environment is modified by tillage or terracing of the land, and pests are controlled by applying chemical pesticides. Rangelands, for the most part, do not receive such inputs. The capacity of rangelands to produce commodities and satisfy values depends on the integrity of internal nutrient cycles; energy flows; plant community dynamics; an intact soil profile; and stores of nutrients and water. Rangeland health should be a minimum ecological standard, independent of the rangeland's use and how it is managed. If rangeland health is protected, a variety of uses could be appropriate for any particular rangeland. The selected use(s) would depend on the preferences of the landowner, if the rangeland is privately owned, or the relative values placed by society on different uses of federal rangelands. These decisions will still be contentious, but they can at least be taken in the context of protecting rangeland health and, therefore, the capacity of rangelands to produce commodities and satisfy values regardless of their use. USE AND MANAGEMENT Rangeland health inventories and monitoring systems should be one part of a larger system of data gathering and analysis to inform range mangers, policymakers, and the public about the use and management of rangelands. An assessment of rangeland health estimates the risk of the loss of the capacity to produce commodities and satisfy values by evaluating the integrity of the site's ecological processes and soils. Such an evaluation
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Rangeland Health: New Methods to Classify, Inventory, and Monitor Rangelands does not determine conclusively the causes of current conditions or determine what changes in management are required, or how a particular rangeland should be used. The determination of which uses and management practices are appropriate will require the evaluation of different data. No single index will meet all the needs of rangeland assessment and management. Categories for National Assessments The principal purpose of rangeland inventories and assessments completed by the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) of USDA should be to determine the location and proportion of rangelands that are healthy, at risk, or unhealthy. Rangeland ecosystems are dynamic systems that are constantly adjusting to changes in the environment. Fitting rangelands into categories based on assessments of ecological health is a difficult but an essential task of national assessments. The categories defined for purposes of national rangeland assessments should facilitate the interpretation of the results of those assessments for policymakers, range managers, ranchers, and the public. The categories used for national assessments should signal where rangeland use and management need to be changed and help direct range management and technical assistance to those rangelands where they are most needed to prevent degradation or to improve damaged rangelands. The committee recommends that rangelands be placed in three broad categories based on an evaluation of the soil and ecological processes. Rangelands should be considered (1) healthy if an evaluation of the soil and ecological processes indicate that the capacity to satisfy values and produce commodities is being sustained; (2) at risk if the assessment of current conditions indicates a reversible loss in productive capacity and increased vulnerability to irreversible degradation; and (3) unhealthy if the assessment indicates that degradation has resulted in loss of capacity to provide values and commodities that cannot be reversed without external inputs. METHODS TO ASSESS RANGELAND HEALTH The evaluation of rangeland health will require the collection of additional and different data and new approaches to interpreting those data. These data and approaches should reflect the diverse processes of rangeland ecosystems that sustain their capacity to satisfy values and produce
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Rangeland Health: New Methods to Classify, Inventory, and Monitor Rangelands A healthy rangeland has the sustained capacity to satisfy values and produce commodities. Credit: USDA U.S. Forestry Service. commodities. Soil stability, watershed function, nutrient cycling, energy flow, and the mechanisms that enable recovery from stress should be assessed on rangelands. Established criteria are needed to determine, based on the suite of indicators that are sampled, whether the ecosystem is healthy, at risk, or unhealthy. Defining Boundaries Categorizing rangelands as healthy, at risk, or unhealthy requires defining two boundaries: the boundary distinguishing healthy from at-risk rangelands and the boundary distinguishing at-risk from unhealthy rangelands. Rangelands adapt to changes in their use or management and in the environment through alterations in ecosystem characteristics such as plant composition, the amount of plant biomass produced, the amount of nutrients and the rate at which they are cycled, and the amount and composition of soil organic matter. The ecological state of the rangeland at a point in time is the sum total of these characteristics. The rangeland ecosystem shifts between different ecological states over time in response to natural or human-induced factors. Such changes can be sudden or they may occur gradually. There are important differences between the processes and effects of change, however, that can be used to identify boundaries between healthy, at risk, and unhealthy rangelands for the purposes of national
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Rangeland Health: New Methods to Classify, Inventory, and Monitor Rangelands assessments. Many changes in ecological state may have no long-term effect on the capacity of the rangeland to produce commodities or satisfy values. Other changes can be destructive, but their destructive effects can be reversed by changes in use and management or as natural conditions improve. Some changes, however, such as serious soil degradation, the interruption of nutrient cycles, and the loss of important species or seed sources can lead to irreversible changes that reduce the amount and diversity of vegetation, habitat, aesthetics, and other commodities and values the rangeland can provide even if use and management or natural conditions improve. The boundaries between healthy, at-risk, and unhealthy states of a rangeland ecosystem should be distinguished based on differences between states in the capacity to produce commodities and satisfy values and on the reversibility of the changes between states. The threshold of rangeland health should define the boundary between unhealthy and at-risk states. The threshold of rangeland health should be distinguished from other boundaries between the ecological states of a rangeland ecosystem by two key factors: (1) the shift from the at-risk to the unhealthy state is not easily reversed, and (2) the change from the at-risk to unhealthy state entails a reduction in the capacity of the rangeland to satisfy values or produce commodities. The early warning line should define the boundary between healthy and at-risk states. The shift between healthy and at-risk states should indicate: (1) a loss in capacity to satisfy values and produce commodities that is reversible through change in use or management and (2) an increased vulnerability to irreversible degradation. An at-risk categorization should signal the need to take corrective action or to further investigate the site to determine the seriousness and causes of the degradation. Criteria and Indicators The determination of whether a rangeland is healthy, at risk, or unhealthy should be based on the evaluation of three criteria: degree of soil stability and watershed function, integrity of nutrient cycles and energy flows, and presence of functioning recovery mechanisms. Judgments based on the preponderance of evidence from the evaluation of multiple criteria will be required for meaningful assessments of rangeland health. No single criterion alone will be sufficient to determine whether rangelands are healthy, at risk, or unhealthy. SOIL STABILITY AND WATERSHED FUNCTION Soil degradation, primarily through accelerated erosion by wind and water, causes a direct and often irreversible loss of rangeland health. Soil
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Rangeland Health: New Methods to Classify, Inventory, and Monitor Rangelands degradation not only damages the soil itself but also disrupts nutrient cycling, water infiltration, seed germination, seedling development, and other ecological processes that are important components of rangeland ecosystems. In addition, soil degradation damages watersheds, which leads to further degradation of rangeland ecosystems as well as water pollution. Indicators of soil stability and watershed function should be central to the evaluation of rangeland health. The indicators selected to assess soil stability and watershed function should relate to two fundamental processes: (1) soil erosion by wind and water and (2) infiltration or capture of precipitation. The development of predictive models that estimate rates of soil loss and infiltration coupled with the establishment of acceptable rates of soil erosion could help to quantify soil stability and watershed function for an evaluation of rangeland health. Reliable predictive models are being developed but do not yet exist for rangelands. Soil surface characteristics are currently the best available indicators of soil stability and watershed function. Soil surface characteristics, such as presence of rills and gullies or pedestaling of plants, have been widely used as indicators of the degree of soil movement and the condition of the soil surface. Soil surface characteristics also give partial evidence of the magnitude of infiltration or runoff from a site. An evaluation of soil stability and watershed function, as determined by the use of soil surface characteristics as indicators of soil erosion and runoff, should become a fundamental component of all inventorying and monitoring programs for federal and nonfederal rangelands. NUTRIENT CYCLING AND ENERGY FLOW The capacity of rangelands to produce commodities and satisfy values depends on the capture of sunlight energy through photosynthesis and on the accumulation and cycling of nutrients over time. Interruption or slowing of nutrient cycling or energy flows in time or space can lead to degradation as a rangeland site becomes increasingly lacking in available nutrients, energy, and biomass. Plants depend on the nutrients in the soil and energy captured from the sun. Nutrients stored in the soil are used and reused by plants, animals, and microorganisms. The amount of nutrients available and the speed with which nutrients cycle between plants, animals, and the soil are fundamental components of rangeland health. Similarly, the amount, timing, and distribution of energy captured through photosynthesis are fundamental to the function of rangeland ecosystems. The total amount of energy captured from sunlight is an important determinant of the commodities produced and values satisfied by rangelands. Indicators that
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Rangeland Health: New Methods to Classify, Inventory, and Monitor Rangelands Only if rangeland health is sustained or improved can the debate profitably shift to whether rangelands are suitable for the production of livestock, wildlife, recreation, or some combination of these uses. Credit: USDA U.S. Forest Service. can be used to evaluate the integrity of nutrient cycles and energy flows should be part of a comprehensive evaluation of rangeland health. Experience with such indicators is limited, but the degree of fragmentation in the distribution of plants, litter, roots, and photosynthetic period may be useful stating points for the development of more quantitative indicators of nutrient cycles and energy flow. RECOVERY MECHANISMS The capacity of rangeland ecosystems to adjust to change in ways that prevent loss of rangeland health depends on the presence or absence of functioning recovery mechanisms. Properly functioning recovery mechanisms result in the capture and cycling of nutrients; capture of en-
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Rangeland Health: New Methods to Classify, Inventory, and Monitor Rangelands ergy; conservation of nutrients, energy, and water within the site; development of resistance to extreme events; and resilience to change—the processes through which rangeland health is sustained or improved. Indicators of change in recovery mechanisms should be part of a comprehensive assessment of rangeland health. Useful indicators may include increasing vegetative cover, increasing plant vigor, change in the kind and number of seedlings, changes in plant age class distribution, and other plant community attributes that will lead to greater soil stability, nutrient storage and cycling, and energy capture. Various indicators of plant demographics have been commonly used in rangeland assessments, and indicators of age class distribution, plant vigor, and the presence and distribution of microsites for seed germination and seedling development would be useful starting points for the development of more systematic indicators of the function of recovery mechanisms on rangelands. Research Needed The secretaries of USDA and DOI should initiate a coordinated research effort, drawing on federal agency and other scientists to develop, test, and employ indicators of the spatial and temporal distributions of nutrients and energy and the presence and functioning of recovery mechanisms for use in rangeland health assessments. The lack of experience with and testing of specific indicators of nutrient cycling, energy flow, and recovery mechanisms is an important impediment to the development of a comprehensive system of determining whether rangelands are healthy, at risk, or unhealthy. There is an urgent need for basic and applied research to develop useful indicators and the understanding needed to interpret the significance of changes in those indicators. The secretaries of USDA and DOI should initiate a coordinated research effort, drawing on federal agency and other scientists to develop, test, and employ new models of rangeland change that incorporate the concept of ecological thresholds. New models that better explain the dynamics of rangeland ecosystems are needed to provide the foundation for rangeland health assessments. New models have been proposed, but as yet there is no single, coherent model that explains the anomalies in the current succession-retrogression model or that has been sufficiently tested to replace current successional concepts. An interdisciplinary research effort that links range scientists with other ecologists is needed to develop and test new models. The secretaries of USDA and DOI should initiate a coordinated research effort, drawing on federal agency and other scientists to increase understanding of the relationship between soil properties and rangeland health.
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Rangeland Health: New Methods to Classify, Inventory, and Monitor Rangelands While much research and experience supports the relationship of soil surface characteristics to rangeland health, basic knowledge of the effects of other soil properties such as organic matter content or water-holding capacity on nutrient cycling, energy flows, recovery mechanisms, and other elements of rangeland health is limited. The effects of grazing management and other management practices on soil properties are also not well understood. Basic and applied research is needed to increase understanding of how changes in soil properties affect rangeland health. NATIONAL INVENTORYING AND MONITORING SYSTEM An assessment of the health of a particular rangeland will provide information to local managers, ranchers, and others who need to protect or improve that rangeland. A coordinated system that can be used to complete national-level assessments of rangeland health, however, is not in place. The lack of a national-level inventorying and monitoring system is a major impediment to the nation's ability to assess the health of federal and nonfederal rangelands and to judge whether current management and use of federal and nonfederal rangelands are adequately sustaining the rangeland's capacity to satisfy values and produce commodities. Minimum Data Set A national system to inventory and monitor rangelands should be based on the collection and analysis of data on changes in a minimum set of multiple indicators of rangeland health. Rangelands are diverse, and large amounts of data are needed for all range management activities. Some indicators will be of particular importance for some types of rangelands and for some management purposes. Indicator species of plants or animals, for example, could be particularly important for specific rangeland ecosystems. To build the consistent data set required to assess rangeland health, a small, selected set of indicators should be collected as part of all current and ongoing rangeland management and assessment activities on both federal and nonfederal rangelands. This minimum data set can be augmented with measures of additional indicators of rangeland health that are of particular importance for the assessment of particular classes of rangelands. Standardize Indicators and Methods The secretaries of USDA and DOI should convene a multiagency task force to develop, test, and standardize indicators and methods for inventorying and monitoring rangeland health on federal and nonfederal rangelands.
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Rangeland Health: New Methods to Classify, Inventory, and Monitor Rangelands Current discrepancies in the definitions, interpretations, and methods have seriously reduced the comparability as well as the utility of the data collected by SCS, BLM, and USFS. Similarly; new methods of rangeland assessments developed by SCS, BLM, and USFS should be coordinated with efforts of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop the Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program (EMAP). The same discrepancy problems will plague efforts to make national-level assessments of rangeland health if SCS, BLM, USFS, and EPA independently develop different methods. The multiagency task force should coordinate federal efforts, including EPA's EMAP effort, leading to (1) a set of indicators that should be included in a minimum data set for inventorying and monitoring rangeland health; (2) standard methods of measuring indicators and categorizing rangelands as healthy, at risk, or unhealthy; (3) a series of field tests to validate the indicators and methods selected; and (4) quantification of the correlation between measures of rangeland health and range condition (SCS) or ecological status (USFS and BLM). It is also important that all agencies adopt comparable systems of site classification for the purposes of national-level inventorying and monitoring of rangelands. To limit differences in interpretations, common site classifications should be soil based and should provide general information on vegetative production, plant and animal community structure, life-form dynamics, and predicted responses to disturbances such as fires, grazing, floods, and droughts. Correlation of rangeland classifications across administrative boundaries will be needed even if all agencies adopt unified approaches to site classification for inventorying and monitoring purposes. National Sampling System The secretaries of USDA and DOI should develop coordinated plans for implementing a sampling system on federal and nonfederal rangelands that will produce estimates of the proportion of healthy, at-risk, and unhealthy rangelands that are significant at appropriate local, state, regional, and national levels. A national sampling system that coordinates the activities of USDA, DOI, and EPA is needed to collect, analyze, and aggregate data to determine the proportion of federal and nonfederal rangelands that are healthy, at risk, or unhealthy. The National Resources Inventory, conducted by SCS, is a statistically valid sampling design used to assess various characteristics of nonfederal rangelands. No comparable sampling program is in place on federal rangelands. Most of the data collected are for management purposes rather than for national inventorying and monitoring purposes. The development of a coordinated sampling system for both federal and nonfederal rangelands is urgently needed.
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Rangeland Health: New Methods to Classify, Inventory, and Monitor Rangelands Periodic Sampling Needed The secretaries of USDA and DOI should develop coordinated plans for implementing periodic sampling of federal and nonfederal rangelands to determine changes in the proportions of healthy, at-risk, and unhealthy rangelands. Periodic monitoring must be a fundamental part of a valid national system for evaluating rangeland health. The periodicity of repeated sampling should reflect the rapidity of change within the indicators selected to monitor rangelands and the degree of degradation that a change implies to give adequate early warning of increases in the area of unhealthy rangelands. Monitoring should be frequent enough such that a rangeland would not slip from a healthy to an unhealthy state between sampling periods. TRANSITION TO RANGELAND HEALTH ASSESSMENTS The implementation of rangeland health assessment as a management tool to protect rangelands at the local level or as a national inventory and monitoring program will take time. Standardized indicators and methods will have to be developed. National sampling systems will have to be put in place, and resources will have to be allocated to the collection of data on indicators of rangeland health. Given the importance of rangeland ecosystems, it is important that SCS, USFS, and BLM move quickly and in a coordinated fashion toward developing and employing the tools needed to assess rangeland health. Intermediate Steps As progress is made toward more comprehensive and standardized assessments of rangelands, there are important intermediate steps that could be taken to substantially increase the information available and the understanding needed to determine whether rangelands are healthy, at risk, or unhealthy. Indicators of soil surface condition should be added to all current and ongoing range condition (SCS) and ecological status (USFS and BLM) assessments, and any other ongoing efforts to assess rangelands, as a first step toward a more comprehensive evaluation of rangeland health. There is much experience with the use of soil surface characteristics as indicators of soil stability and watershed function. The addition of indicators of soil surface condition to all current and ongoing efforts to assess rangelands would be a useful first step toward a more comprehensive system of evaluating rangeland health—a step that should be taken
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Rangeland Health: New Methods to Classify, Inventory, and Monitor Rangelands immediately. Data on the soil surface condition of rangelands should also be collected as part of the National Resources Inventory. All current and ongoing rangeland assessments done as part of Resources Conservation Act (RCA) appraisals, Resources Planning Act (RPA) assessments, national forest planning, USFS and BLM land use and allotment planning, and environmental assessments should be based on the analysis of multiple ecological attributes. SCS, USFS, and BLM should analyze multiple ecological attributes of rangelands as part of current rangeland assessments and appraisals. Plant composition and production data collected as part of range condition (SCS) and ecological status (USFS and BLM) ratings should be analyzed in conjunction with information collected on indicators of soil surface condition, as recommended above, and all other available information on erosion rates. Using these multiple indicators, the agencies could begin to assess soil stability and watershed function, distribution of nutrients and energy, and presence of functioning recovery mechanisms as a means of identifying rangelands at greater risk of loss of health. This analysis should be part of conservation planning or management of grazing allotments as well as national appraisals and assessments. These assessments would not provide a complete assessment of rangeland health, but they would represent progress toward measuring and analyzing multiple ecological attributes within each agency. They would also help guide national policy for managing federal and nonfederal rangelands in the interim while more comprehensive and systematic assessments of rangeland health are developed. Basic data including soil surface conditions, erosion rates, plant composition, and biomass production assembled and used to assess rangelands as part of RCA appraisals, RPA assessments, national forest planning, environmental assessments, and other assessments of federal and nonfederal rangelands should be made available to the public and the scientific community for independent review. Independent review and analysis of these data will increase the understanding of and confidence in the results of the assessments of federal and nonfederal rangelands. Publication of basic data will provide a data set for scientific evaluation of the utility of alternative indicators of soil stability and watershed function, distribution of nutrients and energy, and presence of recovery mechanisms as measures of rangeland health. The availability of basic data, for example, used to estimate erosion rates as part of the National Resources Inventory has allowed scientists to test the effect of alternative agricultural policies and crop management practices on erosion rates. Independent review of these basic data has increased the confidence of estimates of erosion reductions expected from
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Rangeland Health: New Methods to Classify, Inventory, and Monitor Rangelands changes in farming practices. It is important that basic data on multiple ecological attributes of federal and nonfederal rangelands be made available to both the public and the scientific community to accelerate the transition to comprehensive methods for assessing rangeland health. Preserving Continuity During the Transition It is essential that, as the transition to more comprehensive assessments of rangeland health is made, a link be maintained between current methods and data and new methods and data. Current methods should not be abandoned until new systems are in place to replace or augment those methods. In most cases, the data collected as part of range condition (SCS) and ecological status (USFS and BLM) ratings are the only historical data available on rangelands. Although these data alone are not sufficient for assessing the health of the nation's rangelands, the continuity of these data should be preserved as the transition to rangeland health assessments is made. SCS, USFS, and BLM should continue current and ongoing range condition (SCS) and ecological status (USFS and BLM) ratings while the transition to rangeland health assessment is made. The data that have been and continue to be collected for range condition (SCS) and ecological status (USFS and BLM) assessments should provide a critical historical data set for use in judging changes in rangeland conditions. As a transition is made to national-level inventorying and monitoring of rangeland health as recommended here, it is imperative that this information not be lost. The committee strongly recommends that current and planned monitoring efforts that use range condition (SCS) and ecological status (USFS and BLM) move ahead and be augmented by the collection of additional data for evaluating rangeland health. CHALLENGE TO RANGE SCIENTISTS AND MANAGERS It will be difficult to develop methods of rangeland health assessment that are suitable for use by range managers who must administer large areas of federal rangeland or deliver technical assistance to ranchers and by scientists who develop national-level inventories of rangelands. New partnerships between range managers, range scientists, and other ecologists working in different ecosystems and different institutions will be needed. The barriers to coordination between different federal agencies erected by different mandates and traditions will have to be overcome. Answering the question ''Are our rangelands healthy?'' may be the
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Rangeland Health: New Methods to Classify, Inventory, and Monitor Rangelands most important contribution range scientists and managers can make to resolving the debate over the use and management of federal and nonfederal rangelands. Answering this question will provide the information that is urgently needed by range managers, scientists, policymakers, ranchers, and environmentalists struggling to improve rangelands and range management. Advances in the methods needed to answer this question will help build a firmer scientific foundation for rangeland assessment and management. And finding ways to answer the question ''Are our rangelands healthy?" will be an important step toward sustaining the ecological integrity and productivity of these important ecosystems.
Representative terms from entire chapter: