American Heroes - Elsie Dupree

A Powerful Voice for Public Lands

  • Michael Tennesen
  • Apr 01, 1997
Almost everywhere she goes these days, Elsie Dupree takes along two plastic pots filled with native grasses. She totes them to schools, county fairs and other meetings to give people one criterion by which to judge grazing conditions on public lands in her home state of Nevada.

The pots contain grasses that have grown to varying lengths. In one of them, Dupree places a golf ball; in the other, a tennis ball. "I tell people that if they toss a tennis ball out on public land riparian areas and have trouble finding it in the grass, chances are the ranchers who graze there are taking good care of the land," she says. "But if they toss out a golf ball and have no problem spotting it, then that land is overgrazed and in trouble." And unfortunately, she notes, far too many of Nevada's 48 million acres of federal public lands--87 percent of the state's territory--are in trouble these days.

A legislative liaison with the Nevada Wildlife Federation--an NWF affiliate--Dupree has worked tirelessly for several years trying to convince ranchers, state and federal authorities and anyone else who will listen that Nevada's public lands are a national treasure in need of tender care. According to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which administers most of those public lands, only about 2 million of the 48 million acres are in "excellent" condition. On the other hand, says BLM, 16.5 million acres are just in "fair" condition, and 19 million more are in "poor" condition.

A few years ago, Dupree began noticing that some public land waters were polluted, and the springs were trampled and filled with cow manure. "It made me mad," she says.

Dupree's husband, Gale, previously had joined the 1,000-member Nevada Wildlife Federation and served as its president. In 1990, a concerned Elsie Dupree also joined the organization and quickly became its leading lobbyist. These days, she is a familiar face in the halls of the state capitol in Carson City. "Elsie Dupree is one of the most effective advocates for preservation of the natural environment in the state," observes Bob Miller, governor of Nevada.

Federal officials apparently agree with that assertion. In 1995, they asked Dupree to sit on Interior Department Secretary Bruce Babbit's BLM Resource Advisory Council, which is charged with setting new grazing standards for Nevada public lands.

Dupree is particularly concerned about the effects of grazing on streamside habitat in an arid state like Nevada, where only 1 percent of the public lands are riparian habitat (with streams or lakes nearby). "There's nothing more stupid than a cow," says Dupree. "It gets in a riparian area and it goes through like a lawn mower, gobbling up everything in sight." After a season or two of this kind of uncontrolled grazing, riverbank vegetation disappears and the resulting soil erosion pollutes adjacent streams.

In Nevada, notes Dupree, ranchers graze their cattle on public lands from April 15 to October 15. "Unfortunately," she says, "many ranchers just put their cows out on the range and don't see them again until October. They need to get out and move their cattle around more often to protect fragile areas."

In 1988, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that wildlife was a beneficial user of the state's water. "By doing so," says Dupree, "the state was in effect making wildlife officially eligible for a portion of the water in riparian areas, thus helping to protect those areas from overgrazing." Dupree has since used that decision to help argue against misuse of streamside habitat.

Two years ago, she played a major role in convincing authorities in Nevada to establish the Wildlife Heritage Trust Account, a landmark state program that uses revenue from big-game hunting tags to provide much-needed funds for conservation efforts that benefit all wildlife.

Dupree, who comes from a long line of family farmers, understands the problems ranchers face today. And so she works toward building concensus on issues and finding solutions, rather than starting fights. "She strikes you as the proverbial housewife in tennis shoes,'" says Jacqui Bonomo, director of NWF's Western Natural Resource Center. "But beneath her good-natured personality is a tenacious, well-informed, politcally savvy individual." Adds U.S. Senator Harry M. Reid (D-Nevada): "We need more people like Elsie Dupree."

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