In late 2011, Utah's then-Agriculture Commissioner Leonard Blackham and Department of Natural Resources Director Mike Styler carefully picked stakeholders with a variety of perspectives and tasked them with finding common ground on how to make grazing better. Representatives from universities, state and federal agencies, local government, the woolgrowers' and cattlemen's associations, hunting and conservation groups, and, of course, the Trust, took part. As a starting point, everyone had to recognize grazing as a valid use of public land and acknowledge its impacts. Nobody's concerns could be ignored or voted down: Solutions had to be unanimous to make the group's report.
At first, meetings were tense. Then-Wayne County Commissioner Tom Jeffery received angry calls from other local officials for participating because "they thought it was to do away with grazing."
It wasn't until the group got out on the ground that trust grew. On one field trip, they visited an area that was battered even though cattle had been fenced out – validating ranchers' claim that they sometimes get blamed for impacts beyond their control. O'Brien "recognized that elk were doing damage," says fourth-generation rancher Dave Eliason, former president of the Utah Cattlemen's Association. "I'm pro-aspen," explains O'Brien. "I don't care who's overbrowsing it."
On a separate trip to Nevada, Hopkin, O'Brien and two other members toured a project where ranchers and the BLM had restored a riparian area simply by changing the grazing regime. "What made Mary breathe hard was when she saw the beaver dams," laughs Hopkin. "She was looking over the edge of the stream and I heard her say under her breath, 'Holy shit.' " Afterward, they shared before-and-after pictures of a once shallow, muddy channel now verdant with willows and bursting with life. "For Mary to stand up in front of Dave Eliason and say, 'They never reduced (cattle) stocking,' " Hopkin recalls, "was a huge social change for the entire group."
The group's report, released quietly in December 2012, lays out indicators that, with simple monitoring methods anyone can use, would help give a more comprehensive picture of forest health in grazed areas, from plant diversity to stream macroinvertebrates, as well as economic and social indicators, such as meat production and whether the Forest Service is including multiple stakeholders in decisions. The report also suggests grazing changes to better account for ecosystem needs, depending on what monitoring reveals and what's feasible for ranchers –– grouping grazing leases together to manage at a landscape scale, for example, or resting pastures, especially during growing season, even creating reference areas without livestock grazing to better assess its effects.
"What we have is a representative agreement that grazing is appropriate, but not everywhere, all the time, " Rowley says. He won't speculate on how the report will shape the upcoming policy changes, but points to south-central Utah's Monroe Mountain as an example of the sort of innovations he'd like them to encourage.
There, another collaborative co-chaired by O'Brien and Hopkin is applying the 2009 aspen group's recommendations. In addition to prescribed burns and some logging, the Fishlake National Forest's Richfield Ranger District is overseeing installation of extra fence and tanks, troughs and pipelines to help it manage three allotments, totaling 56,000 acres, as a unit. The increased number of watered pastures will allow ranchers to move livestock more often and vary the times they graze certain areas, in theory helping protect streams, as well as giving some high-elevation pastures a much-needed rest. There, researchers will be able to single out what role elk and deer play in the aspen's troubles. They'll also monitor whether the changes help boost aspen. If not, the district will further tweak livestock grazing, or work with the state to reduce wildlife browsing.
"I don't know if the Forest Service would have gotten to this type of proposal on our own," says District Ranger Jason Kling. "And we certainly wouldn't have the same support."
But it's unclear how well such methods would translate to other spots. The infrastructure and monitoring cost $675,000, including $145,000 in federal funds – too much for ranchers to shoulder on their own, says Will Talbot, who runs sheep on Monroe when not working full-time for the county road department to make ends meet. The cost of maintaining new infrastructure also has ranchers apprehensive, and it takes extra work and employees to get animals settled in new grazing patterns. That will be a squeeze if managers make them reduce their herds.
The expense is a significant sticking point for environmentalists outside the Monroe group. "Why should we industrialize public lands for livestock production, especially if it requires big subsidies to do so?" asks Jonathan Ratner, who watchdogs Utah, Wyoming and Colorado for the Western Watersheds Project, the environmental group ranchers are wariest of. "If you wanted to open a pizzeria, would you expect the federal government to supply the oven, hire the people for you, buy the flowers?"
O'Brien concedes that she has "real questions about propping up grazing," but adds that Monroe will help untangle what strategies produce real results, and enable the public to judge if the infrastructure is worth it. Hopkin thinks it is, given public-land ranching's place in rural economies and culture, and the ecosystem benefits he believes ranching provides. At a 220,000-acre ranch he managed for the Mormon Church, for example, Hopkin says a carefully calibrated grazing plan helped increase wildlife and plant diversity and improve stream condition, even as herd size increased, ultimately boosting livestock and hunting profits.
Whatever happens, change is afoot in Utah. "There are rare people in the agencies who recognize these issues," says the Trust's Hedden. The key will be maintaining momentum: Forsgren retired last January, though he now works on the same issues for Trout Unlimited, and his successor, Nora Rasure, supports the sustainable grazing group's approach. Hopkin is partially retired. O'Brien frets over what will happen when he leaves. "When he walks into a room, he shakes hands with everybody, he makes self-deprecating jokes. He really models to other ranchers how you can talk to environmentalists without a whole lot of pain."
She says she won't retire any time soon, though. "There's too much good that comes out of this work. Now, all you have to say is, 'Hey, people can talk. It's worked before.' Every time there's one of these collaborations, it's clearer that the days are over in Utah where just (ranchers) and the agency make the calls on grazing."
Sarah Gilman is HCN's associate editor.