Contradictory Ideas on Managing Land
Lauresta Piper-Ruth

Thesis: Allen Savory’s holistic management ideas on grazing and resting the land do not work in the basic ways that he claims they do.


I. Introduction ~ Who is Allen Savory?

II. Holistic Management Principles

III. Claims and Disputes

a. Grazing and Decomposition
b. Grazing and Soil Fertility

IV. Other Disputing Evidence

a. Grazing is Not Essential
b. Many Places Were Never Grazed

V. Savory’s Explanations

VI. Savory’s Theories In the Real World

VII. The Real Question Behind the Conflict

VIII. Conclusion

Works Cited

Contradictory Ideas on Managing Land
Lauresta Piper-Ruth

Who is Allen Savory?

At Goshen College, a small liberal arts college, Land Management is one of the courses required for Environmental Studies majors. The main book required for this class is Holistic Management by Allan Savory. Savory is a well-known ecologist and author. His books cover his theories on how to take care of land. His work is so well recognized that he is known as the founder of holistic management principles. The teacher of this Land Management, Bill Minter, draws most of his lectures from the information in this book. One might make the assumption that the information in a book approved for a class such as this would not contain controversial material. Both the teacher and the students in the class assumed just this, the material within the book had subsequent evidence to back up the theories. However, this is not the case. Allen Savory’s holistic management ideas on grazing and resting the land do not work in the basic ways that he claims they do. In fact, research has been done that disputes his theories. Therefore, it has been given a great deal of criticism by other scientist.

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Holistic Management Theories

There are two theories that holistic management advocates swear by. One is that grazing can be beneficial if preformed in the correct way. The other is that resting land is not good for it. Both theories basically state that land can and should be grazed. To understand these theories some background information must be given as to how land works. Land can be identified on a scale of how hydric or xeric it is. Every piece of land falls between those two points. Hydric lands get a great deal of rainfall and have high humidity. As a result they have much more vegetation on the ground and therefore many more organisms to break things down. Xeric lands are just the opposite; they are much drier. They have less rainfall, less humidity, less vegetation, and fewer organisms. When vegetation dies in hydric system, the great numbers of organisms quickly decompose it. When vegetation dies in a xeric system the decomposition is a much longer process. Savory also compares these landscapes using the terminology of brittle and nonbrittle environments. The more brittle the land is, the more xeric it is. Oppositely, the more nonbrittle the land is, the more hydric it is.

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Claims and Disputes

Grazing and Decomposition

Savory claims that brittle lands need the help of grazing animals in order to decompose of the dead matter properly. Animals help break down materials by trampling on the dead matter as they travel. This puts organic matter back into the soil and improves its fertility. They also eat some of it, assisting the decomposing process with their feces. They encourage plant growth by trimming the plants. “Grazing together with adequate animal impact, can maintain soil cover, keep plants healthy and more productive, and in general enhance the functioning of all four ecosystem processes” (Savory,1999 ).

However, research has been done showing this is not necessarily true. Many scientists think that grazing is detrimental to any kind of land. George Wuerthner (2003) compares this idea to that of a donut diet. A diet may cause a person to lose weight by eating only donuts, but one would not come to the conclusion that such a diet is healthy. In the same way, grazing is unhealthy. Cows may cause plants to regrow in response to being eaten. However, “regrowth is not evidence that the plant has benefited from being eaten”. In fact, this is actually a cost to plants. Grazing causes the plants to put energy into regrowth and therefore the plant has less energy to perform other functions, such as root development. In addition, regrowth is dependent on moisture. If grasses are grazed in a xeric system, they may not have enough moisture left to regrow. Taylor (2001) cites Flather's1994 study of biodiversity in the arid southwest (Forest Service rep. RM-241), actually “showed grazing to be the most pervasive cause of species being listed as endangered”

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Grazing and Soil Fertility

Savory (1999) claims that grazing increases soil fertility. “Grazing enhances both of these [water and mineral cycles] through maintaining healthier and more stable root mass, increasing microorganisms and producing plants with more shoots and leaves that later provide more litter.". Other research illustrates that livestock interfere with nutrient cycling. In Alberta a study was done confirming that short-duration grazing reduced soil and organic matter in comparison with non-grazed soils. According to this study, that is partly because grazing also reduces the moisture in the soil because less vegetation is able to shade the soil and the hooves of the livestock compact the soil so the water cannot penetrate it as well (Wuerthner, 2003).

In direct contradiction, Savory (1999) states that the hooves actually help water infiltration because they trample the ground. “Animals tend to speed the breakdown and reduce the volume of plant material returned to the soil surface through their dung and urine. They also speed the return of uneaten old plant material to the soil surface throughout the litter they trample down." However, other research has shown that this really impairs soil in two ways. Not only does it compact the soil, it destroys the soil’s crust. This actually increases water runoff and decreases water infiltration. Erosion is accelerated because the surface can be washed away. In addition, the loss of these crusts is also known to be one of the factors that aids in spreading invasive weeds, such as cheatgrass. (Wuerthner, 2003)

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Other Disputing Evidence

Grazing is Not Essential

A great amount of evidence demonstrates that grazing is not essential to land in general. “Areas protected from livestock grazing offer the most telling evidence that munching cattle are not a prerequisite to ecosystem health” (Wuerthner, 2003). Dutchwoman Butte in Arizona is a prime example of this. It is an isolated mesa top that has an impressive amount of diversity although it has never been grazed. A study performed by Forest Service researchers showed that the mesa had four times the amount of forage in comparison to similar areas that were grazed, even though there was a severe drought when the study took place. In addition, no signs of plants such as mesquite and snakeweed were found on the mesa. These are undesirable forage plants and are very common on grazed sites (Wuerthner, 2003). Taylor (2001) gives another example of this in the research done by Holechek et al. (1999 Rangelands 21:12). They “examined claims of range productivity for rotation rest systems, and found no additional value beyond just overall reduction in average cattle stocking rate. Indeed 25% of studies of low level grazing use of 35% or less of grass, still resulted in no significant range recovery”

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Many Places Were Never Grazed

Savory asserts that his grazing practices are an attempt to mimic the bison that once roamed in the west. Apparently the cows can take the place of the bison in the ecosystem. However, “most plants west of the Continental divide evolved in the absence of large herding animals” (Wuerthner, 2003). “When Savory argues that centuries of large-herd grazing in the west maintained healthy grassland, he reinvents history. Until domestic livestock were introduced to the region some 150 years ago, the Great Basin and the desert Southwest were not heavily grazed for 5,000 to 10,000 years” (Raether, 2002). Taylor (2001) cites another source disproving this, Mack and Thompson's 1982 (Am. Nat. 119:757) classic, which showed grazing adapted grasses of the prairie province were the only ones grazed. In the southwest, large grazing animals, such as bison, have not been around in any numbers since the Pleistocene.

Savory maintains this reasoning in why the land should not be overrested. He argues that without the presence of livestock the land will deteriorate. He claims that the bison also kept the land from deteriorating. However, the land cannot be overrested because all rangelands are grazed. Other herbivores graze as well, not only large livestock. In Yellowstone National Park researchers found that the biomass of grasshoppers is greater then all the other large grazing animals combined. In fact, the grasshoppers exceed the others by three times and are a major consumer of the plants (Wuerthner, 2003). In addition, “This concept has no basis in science and appropriately perhaps, none is cited. Over-rest is a value judgment by ranchers, who object to abundant dead foliage and unpalatability to livestock. Dead foliage has ecological and autecological values, such as carrying grassfires that prevent woody encroachment and protecting grass meristems from freezing, grazing and drought” (Taylor, 2001)

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Savory’s Explanations

In addition to what Savory (1999) maintains about grazing, he increases his claims by asserting that total or partial rest of the land is actually detrimental to it. Total rest is when all forms of disturbance are withheld for a considerable about of time. Partial rest is different from total rest in that it still has large game present but a large proportion of the land is still undisturbed because the game doesn’t reach all of it. Savory holds this claim partly because he believes that,

We considered rest natural until we registered the fact that the brittle and nonbrittle environments react to it in very different ways and that the major grazing areas of the world, particularly before humans developed the ability to use fire and spears, seldom, if ever, experienced rest on a large scale…When we first settled in permanent villages and thus drove wild herds from the surrounding area, they unintentionally but decisively subjected those lands to rest (Savory, 1999).

According to Savory (1999), when the land is rested old plant material that is not disturbed by grazing is still present in the next growing season. This weakens and possibly kills most perennial grasses. In addition to this, when the soil is not disturbed it is hard for new plants to replace the dead or dying ones. Capping soil often forms on rested soil, which is bad for germinating seeds. He even includes pictures as evidence. One photo shows land in New Mexico that is very brittle. He explains how this land used to be healthy but was subjected to total rest, which has caused many grass plants to die. The only ones remaining are barely alive. No seedlings have established on the bare ground even though there were many years of seen production.

Savory (1999) has an explanation as to why people believe rest is helpful. In the past overgrazing was very prominent. Eventually, it was realized that overgrazing was causing deterioration of the land, and was even leading to desertification. The solution was, of course, to stop the grazing and let the land heal. This had positive effects. Savory does not discount this fact. However, he claims that as time continued the land again began to deteriorate because grazing was not reintroduced. He describes this as a typical situation that was misleading because there was a, “Time delay before the effects of the rest became apparent.” He gives a good example of this so-called typical situation.

Following the years of being overgrazed by livestock, plants respond vigorously to rest and all looks good. The increase in volume and cover benefits many creatures and complexity builds up…List of small mammals, birds, and insects become impressive as more species reap the new bounty. Gradually, however, measurements note the first sign of adverse change. Moribund grasses turn up in the log book, various weedy plants increase in number, and bare spots begin to open up. None of this is expected, and for a year or so it proceeds while people hope the problem will go away. Inevitably, when the problem does not go away, the managers conclude that fire should be used as “fire is natural and it maintained grassland in the past.”… In a brittle environment fire… exposes soil. Given that rest also tends to expose soil…the situation predictably worsens…Technology often comes next, in the form of seeding, plowings, plantings, check dams, ditching, and the like…When confronted by the argument for reintroducing animal impact as a natural influence managers in such situations typically respond, “but no bison ever roamed here.”…This ignores the fact that many animals maintained grasslands, not just bison and that there were many more species of animals, including ancestors of cattle…Even in the last few centuries, species other than bison, such as deer, elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, could break a period of rest, but so little is known about the actual number and distribution of these animals, even a century ago, that debates about them tend to be academic. In some parts of the American Southwest where people insist that large herds never occurred, we now have evidence that hunting peoples thrived even relatively recently (within the last two hundred years). In fact, aerial inspections have revealed a remarkable density of not so ancient pronghorn traps. Although many, including myself, far prefer wildlife to livestock, today we have to employ the tools at hand or accept the dreadful consequences of desertification (Savory, 1999).

A story like the one above makes Savory seem very convincing. There are certainly many advocates of his theories. The Quivira Coalition, for example, bases their views on the ideas of Savory. They are a group of mostly New Mexican ranchers who “promote the premise that it is possible to manage grazing cattle so as to be compatible with the natural ecosystems of the earth” (Taylor, 2001). Another example is Duke Phillips, the ranch manager of the Chico Basin Ranch, which is an 86,000-acre cattle operation in southeastern El Paso County, close to Colorado Springs. Philips calls Savory his mentor. He implements Savory’s holistic management principles on the Chico Basin Ranch. Philips explains that, “Left to its own devices and never grazed, the ‘pretty’ grass would eventually choke itself out. Little of the area’s rainfall would penetrate to its roots and it would not reseed as long as the ground remained undisturbed” (Eastburn, 2002). These views were obviously taken directly from the ideas of Savory.

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Savory’s Theories in the Real World

One might wonder how theories such as theses are so well accepted by so many, or at least enough to be part of a college curriculum. First of all, holistic management practices of grazing are certainly better than other practices. The livestock is watched very closely and when one piece of land has been grazed enough the cattle are moved to a new place and do not return to that area until the land has regrown. This calls for very careful monitoring of range conditions, which is very time consuming and expensive. Therefore, “success is possible in theory but very difficult to realize in practice” (Wuerthner, 2003). Those who have tried holistic management and have not seen good results do not blame the theory but themselves. However, there are some ranchers who insist they have seen improvement by switching to holistic management. It is more likely that the ranchers are now paying attention to what they used to give very little thought and therefore notice improvements. These improvements usually take place due to some other factor, such as increased precipitation, but the ranchers fail to see that change. Instead they attribute the change to their better management.

Finally, the way holistic management measures and defines success is different from how conservation biologists do. Holistic management sees any increase in species number and or diversity between species as success. Conservation biologists have a different goal, which is to “preserve or restore native species to something approaching their historic distribution and numbers as well as to preserve the important ecological processes that direct species’ evolution” (Wuerthner, 2003). By this definition an increase in species may in actuality be detrimental if it is an invasive species. There is also one obvious answer to the above question. Savory’s theories don’t only allow farmers to graze but promote it. This is the best of both worlds. The land is restored and the ranchers don’t go broke. “The need to restore and repair degraded landscapes through controlled livestock grazing, is, of course, a very happy coincidence for the livestock industry” (Wuerthner, 2003).

People want to believe this theory because it sounds so perfect. They don’t want to look for contradicting information and tend to ignore it if they find it. Numerous environmentalists are angry at Savory for this very reason. His theories give farmers a reason to graze. These environmentalists do everything they can think of to discredit Savory. Keith Raether (2002) is one of them. He declares that, “Some of his notions even border on an anti-Darwinian conception of the natural world. (Savory once wrote that ‘After years of working on several continents, I have been unable to find any clear evidence of competition in nature.’) His is a quasi-religious world laced with proverbs and prophecies - - a world in which the messiah is Savory himself.”

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The Real Question Behind the Conflict

Savory (1999) himself hits the problem right on the nose when he admits that “Even in the last few centuries, species other than bison, such as deer, elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, could break a period of rest, but so little is known about the actual number and distribution of these animals, even a century ago, that debates about them tend to be academic” The main debate over these issues is whether or not the land was grazed originally. This answer is impossible to be sure of simply because it is in the past. Scientists can research all they want and different evidence can lead them in different directions, but it is impossible to be certain. Therefore, this debate will continue because there is no definite answer and no means of finding this answer. It may be that both sides are trying to do what is best for the land, and truly believe they are. Obviously, this depends on how they thought the land functioned in the past.

It is evident that these issues have proved to be very controversial. However, many are taught the ideas of Savory and do not attempt to dispute them. Initially they sound so good. Helen Ulmschnider, an ecologist at the Bureau of Land Management deals with this everyday. She often has to talk to ranchers about Savory’s theories. She admits that those ranchers using holistic management may be a bit better then other practices, but that does not mean grazing is beneficial. By claiming grazing is beneficial Savory is making an already difficult problem worse. Ranchers can now believe that what they are doing is good to the land. They no longer have any reason to not graze it. Furthermore, they often try Savory’s ideas and become frustrated with results and so go back to their old ways. If Savory would have presented this as a better way of grazing instead of the solution to every problem, things might be different. Ranchers could try to implement his techniques, which are better then the alternative, and still recognize that some land needs to be preserved and void of grazing. This is also a moral issue. If the ranchers are watching their land then they know whether or not Savory's methods are helping or hurting it. The can compare their own land to land that is free of grazing and see the differences themselves. If they use ethical thinking, they will realize the importance of preserving land and not use Savory's theories as a means of grazing all lands.

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Works Cited

Eastburn, Kathryn. (2002). Back to the Ranch. Retrieved November 6, 2003. From source:

Minter, Bill. Biol 312 (Land Management). Lecture Notes of Spring 2002.

Raether, Keith. (2002). Campaing to Buy Ranchers’ Grazing Permits is the Way to Saving Public Range. Retrieved November 6, 2003. From source:

Taylor, Martin. Ph.D. Center for Biological Diversity, Tucson. Book Review of Nathan F. Sayre (2001) The New Ranch Handbook: A guide to restoring western rangelands. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Quivira Coalition.

Savory, Allen. (1999). Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making. Washington D. C.: Island Press.

Ulmschnider, Helen. BLM ecologist. Personal Interview. July 2002.

Wuerthner, George. The Donut Diet. Retrieved November 6, 2003. From source:

Source of General Reference

Jacobs, Lynn. (1991). The Waste of the West. Tucson, Arizona: Imprint.

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