Chainsaw diplomacy

In southern Utah’s Escalante watershed, a river restoration group tries to cut through old cultural barriers.

A watershed is “that area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community.”                            

— John Wesley Powell

 

The Escalante River is like a tree with its trunk in the Colorado River at Lake Powell and its branches reaching up to the top of the Aquarius Plateau. There’s an elevation gain of 7,000 vertical feet, and it’s all sandstone, a waterslide.

There are two small towns in the watershed, with a combined population of less than 1,200 people. The villages, Escalante and Boulder, are extremely remote by U.S. standards. This area was the last part of the Lower 48 to be mapped by the federal government, in 1875. Today, the closest well-stocked grocery store is more than 100 miles away over winding mountain roads.

The people who live in the two towns are mainly Mormon — members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — descendants of the original pioneers who first arrived in the early 1880s. But there are also newcomers, maybe 25 percent of the current population, who’ve moved here from “outside” because of the area’s natural beauty.

The insiders and the outsiders sometimes do not get along, especially on issues concerning land use and resource management. The most dramatic rift opened up in 1996, when then-President Bill Clinton created the 1.9 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, covering a good part of the watershed. Outsiders welcomed it; insiders were, and many still are, furious. I have a theory about the conflict. I think it’s because the two groups have entirely different cosmologies, or answers to the questions of where we come from, why we are here, and where we are going.

Summer in the Escalante Valley, where a traditional Mormon ranch culture includes the summer parade
Ace Kvale

Summer in the Escalante Valley, where a traditional Mormon ranch culture includes the summer rodeo.
Ace Kvale

Mormons believe we are the offspring of a Heavenly Father who put us here, in this mortal existence on the planet Earth, in order to progress toward a higher, even god-like state of being. They believe they, the Saints of the Latter Days, are chosen by God to build His Kingdom on Earth and prepare for the return of His son, Jesus the Christ, and that God promised this land to them for just this purpose. The Mormons’ belief system is based upon this faith. It’s how they see themselves, as God’s stewards of the land.

The cosmology of the outsiders, on the other hand, is not based in faith but in reason. They believe human beings evolved from ape-like ancestors, for example, and that humans are a part of nature, not separate from it. Their god is nature, and they use science to understand His work, or Her work, if they believe in a god at all. They’re environmentalists.

Both cultures are almost entirely white Americans. There are rich and poor on both sides. They speak the same language, but many of the words have different meanings. The word “cow,” for instance, is a symbol of prosperity to the Mormons, but for environmentalists “cow” is a symbol of environmental destruction. And when it comes to talking about water and how to manage the watershed, the “simple logic” that Powell spoke of is something that’s very difficult to achieve.

Sue Fearon works every day to try to bring people in Escalante and Boulder together around their common watershed issues. She grew up in Connecticut but has lived on Deer Creek, eight miles east of Boulder, for nearly 30 years –– first in a small camper without plumbing or electricity, but now in a home carved out of the inside of an 80-foot-tall sandstone mound. She grows a lot of her own food, has a few beef and dairy cows, pigs, turkeys, some horses. She and her husband, Grant Johnson, want to be as self-sufficient as possible.

This morning, we are in Sue’s pickup, driving from Boulder to Escalante across the Hogback, a narrow winding ridgeline that drops off on both sides for several hundred feet. Sue’s rather petite and she’s sitting up tall with both hands on the wheel, paying close attention to our course.

“I’m a farmer,” she says, “so to me it’s all about productivity.”

“What is?” I ask.

“The water,” she says. “We can let it slide off the mountain and end up in Los Angeles. God knows they need it there. But I think we should use it here in ways that increase productivity, so we can be more self-sufficient as a community.”

A creek, tributary to the Escalante, runs through private property that was cleared of Russian olives through one of the programs under the ERWP umbrella.
Ace Kvale

She’s part of a group called the Escalante River Watershed Partnership, comprised of residents and representatives from government agencies and environmental groups who hope to figure out ways to restore the riparian areas in the Escalante watershed. Riparian areas slow down the water as it slides off the mountain. They have native plants and grasses, which helps the soil function as a sponge, absorbing and holding the water so that other plants and animals can use it. The partnership focuses on riparian zones because many of these areas in the Escalante watershed are in need of attention and effort.

It’s complicated. Some riparian areas are on public property, some are on private property. On public property there are long lists of regulations and procedures, on private property the owner can do pretty much whatever he or she likes. Some riparian areas have been damaged by overgrazing, many have been invaded by Russian olives, and up high in the mountains the beaver have been largely wiped out. Beaver are very good at slowing water down, but some people don’t like them because they clog irrigation pipes.

Sue says the partnership, or ERWP (pronounced “er-whip”), has had some productive meetings and designed projects they’re carrying out, mainly controlling the invasive Russian olives, but there’s a big problem in that, for the most part, the insiders are not participating.

“They won’t come to our meetings,” she says. “When they hear about ERWP they think ‘environmentalists’ and ‘federal government,’ and they’re afraid we’re trying to take away their grazing rights. But we’re not. We’re not trying to get rid of cows. We’re just trying to restore the riparian areas, and we’re using science to guide our work. We’re trying to bring back the grass that cows can eat. But they don’t want to talk to us.”

One of Sue’s jobs with ERWP is to eradicate Russian olives on private land. Russian olives were introduced into the Escalante watershed in the 1950s and have pretty much taken over in recent decades, clogging the shores along the streams in a way that turns the stream into something like a canal or pipeline, so that all the water runs away except for what the trees soak up. Sue has funding to pay crews to come in and get rid of them, at no cost to the landowner.

Click map to enlarge.
Eric Baker

“I meet with the landowners and ask them what they want from their land,” she says. “I ask them what they see in their minds as a best-case scenario. ‘Do you want your stream beds choked with Russian olives so no cows or other animals can get down there? Do you want to not be able to ride a horse along the river?’ Some people like Russian olives because wild turkeys live in them and they love wild turkeys. So I can’t help them, and that’s OK. I can’t force anyone to do something they don’t want to do, because none of this is going to work unless the landowners take a stake in it. If they don’t want to go into it as partners, then it won’t work.”

“And how’s it going?” I ask.

She says that while things improved over the last year, it hasn’t always gone well, at least with some of the locals.

“It’s hard to form partnerships here because I’m an outsider,” she says. “They don’t know who I am, and they’re not used to having someone knock on their door and say, ‘Let’s talk about those Russian olive trees down on your creek.’ ”

I tell her my theory of the two cultures, the two cosmologies and how the two sides see everything differently and there’s not much getting around it.

She’s not impressed. She’s not going to accept a theory that ends with no possibility of change.

 “It’s one river system that runs through this whole area,” she says. “If we act collectively, we can end up with a productive and sustainable community. But if things stay the same, then everybody ends up working independently and the river is cut up in parts, where people act like what they do doesn’t impact everybody else. But that’s not possible, because we’re all in the same watershed.”

 

Dell LeFevre, longtime Escalante Valley rancher.
Ace Kvale

So I call Dell LeFevre, one of the few remaining local ranchers, bishop of the Boulder LDS and ward, current county commissioner, a strong political force in the area. I’ve interviewed him before, but he doesn’t remember me, says he gets interviewed too often.

He’s on his cellphone, driving a semi with a load of hay from Panguitch back to his ranch in Boulder. He says he’ll meet me at the Frosty Freeze in Escalante.

It’s a calm autumn afternoon, the late sunlight on leaves just beginning to turn. We sit at a picnic table next to the sidewalk. Dell’s 75 years old, currently in remission from stage-4 cancer, but still looks and talks a lot like actor Slim Pickens, who played Major “King” Kong, the bomber pilot, in Dr. Strangelove. He and his wife have adopted and raised 14 kids, all from developing countries. He knows I’m the enemy, the liberal media, but he’s the man, the go-to guy in this part of Garfield County, and he’s going to tell it like it is.

“How can I help you?” he asks. “What is it you want to know?”

“So there’s this new citizen’s group, ERWP, that’s trying to restore the watershed, but apparently the locals are not coming to their meetings. I’m wondering if it’s true. When we met before, you said there was a war going on between ‘the Hitlers and the Jews,’ and you were the Jews and the government and the environmentalists were the Hitlers. Is the war still going on?” 

“The truth is, we’ve lost,” he says. “They’re going to get us one way or another. They want to shut down the grazing on public land.”

“But,” I say, “ERWP’s not trying to stop grazing. They’re just trying to cut down Russian olives and bring back the grass.”

Then, for some reason, LeFevre is telling me about his service during the Vietnam War, when he was stationed in the Aleutian Islands and spying on the Russians. Then he got injured and was sent to a hospital in San Francisco, where part of his recuperation involved “rolling hippies in the park.” That was back when he liked to drink beer. He speaks of it fondly.

LeFevre’s smart as a whip, funny and kind of charming. He tells me a story about a woman in his ward who came to him for church assistance, money to pay the bills, and he told her it would be no problem but he’d like her to sweep the church once a week, and she told him he wasn’t a real bishop at all.

“I said, ‘Ma’am, you know that and I know that, but apparently God does not.’ ”

“But what about the ERWP people?” I ask. “Why don’t you go to their meetings?”

And he says, “They’re the ones who shot our cows, cut our fences and burned our line cabins. You’re talking to someone who’s a bit bitter.”

“When did that happen?”

“Back in the ’90s,” he says.

Actually, the cows, the fences and the line cabins belonged to Dell’s father-in-law. The family later sold the grazing permit to the Grand Canyon Trust, an environmental organization interested in restoring the riparian areas along the Escalante River by removing the cattle. LeFevre, along with Garfield County and other ranchers, then sued the Trust, claiming it was illegal to buy a grazing permit and not use it for grazing. The Trust fended off this and other challenges by keeping a smaller number of cows on some of the grazing allotments it had purchased.

“My thing is,” LeFevre says, “the group that’s doing this, some of them are the ones that had the most say in getting us off the river.”

I’m pretty sure this is just not true and he’s saying it for effect, somewhat inflammatorily.

“Who do you think did it?” I ask.

“I think it was someone from the federal government,” he says.

“Does it bother you they base everything in science?” I ask, trying to test my theory. 

“I don’t believe a lot of science,” he says. “Like climate change. The earth may be getting warmer, but things change all the time. You have to go with it.”

“And if it’s getting warmer now it’s because God wants it this way?”

“That’s right,” he says.

Over at the next picnic table splotches of sunlight through the trees are flickering on the faces of three blonde siblings, all under 5 years old, each holding ice cream cones like fish between their hands.

 

Volunteers at the organic farm connected to the Hells Backbone Cafe, a favorite of travelers and newcomers to the valley.
Ace Kvale

Volunteers at the organic farm connected to the Hells Backbone Cafe, a favorite of travelers and newcomers to the valley.
Ace Kvale
Dennis Bramble is a biologist, retired from the University of Utah. He used to study evolutionary morphology. Now he studies grass in the Upper Valley.

“I prefer to call it rangeland science,” he says.

He lives in Escalante but owns 160 acres of what used to be rangeland for cattle in the Upper Valley. We’re going there now in his pickup truck, 15 miles west of town.

“The riparian areas along the streams in this watershed used to be thick with grasses, more than 40 different species,” he says. “But the land was severely overgrazed and the grass, in a lot of areas, is gone now. I’ve been experimenting on my land to see what it takes for the grass to come back.”

Bramble has white hair and wears glasses that are a little crooked. He’s a member of ERWP and he goes to the meetings. He’s tall and thin and soft-spoken, quiet or listening most of the time. He hands me a book that’s been riding on the seat between us. It’s a master’s thesis from 1954, hardbound in leather, a hand-typed carbon copy of the original: The Impact of Man on the Vegetation and Soil of the Upper Valley Allotment, Garfield County, Utah. It might be the only copy in existence; Bramble found it at the University of Utah library.

“I’ll show you my land today, but I think you should read this book and then we’ll come back and it will make a lot more sense.”

The thesis is a scientific report written by an insider, Heber H. Hall from Boulder, Utah, now deceased. It presents a history of grazing on the very land that Bramble now owns and includes testimony from original pioneers who admit that they destroyed many of the grassland areas in the watershed by overgrazing.

According to the first-hand accounts, when the Mormon pioneers first came to the Escalante Valley in the early 1880s, the grass along the streams was so high that herds of sheep would disappear in it. The riparian areas were lush and diverse in species, like veins of living gold the pioneers mined with livestock. They brought in 60,000 sheep and 20,000 cows, and within two decades the grass was gone.

Grass helps the soil to function as a sponge in a variety of ways, especially by intercepting water that would otherwise run freely off the land and helping it to, instead, infiltrate the soil where it is then actually stored. If the grass dies, the sponge dries up. Then, if there’s a flood, the water becomes a knife that cuts the sponge in half, leaving a gap, or arroyo, in between. Now the stream is suddenly five or 10 or 40 feet lower than it used to be. There’s no more water on top, and the only plants that can grow in the arid soil are sagebrush and rabbitbush, neither of which are eaten by cows. This is what happened to many streams in the Escalante watershed.

Hall writes:

“These pioneers, obsessed with misconceived ideas of unlimited abundance of forage for their livestock and water for their arable land, did not perceive that these lands and their products could be destroyed. Their main interest was to reap the harvest that Nature had planted for them without considering what effect the increasing number of sheep and cattle would eventually have upon this harvest. … The initial floods, devastating and uncontrollable, descended upon their privately owned land, ripped open irrigation canals, destroyed dams, trenched and deposited debris on the cultivated fields, rendering them sterile. … Such early destruction to the land was believed, by these early settlers, to be acts of God, punishing them for moral sins committed.”

By 1920, the number of cows and sheep in the watershed had dropped by half. By 1950, according to Hall, livestock productivity had dropped to 10 percent of what it was in the beginning, and nearly 20 percent of the people in Escalante were on government or church relief.

“Little comfort can be found in the fact that the same generation that brought such catastrophe to this once fertile valley lived to reap the poverty of their folly.”

Hall’s tone in his summation is a little caustic, and I wonder if maybe he had something of an ax to grind with his family and friends back in Boulder. Then I run into Dell LeFevre again and I show him the book and he explains what happened.

“Heber was my uncle, and I buried his brother today,” he says as he paws the pages. “But he couldn’t have written this because he couldn’t spell any better than I do.” He hands it back to me.

“In the acknowledgements,” I say, “Hall thanks his wife for proofreading and typing the manuscript, so maybe she helped him with the spelling.”

LeFevre tells me that Heber went away to the Second World War and never really came back. He wound up in Salt Lake City and went to the University of Utah to study science. He became an environmentalist.

“We lost him,” LeFevre says.

 

A Utah Conservation Corps member wields a chainsaw during training with the Escalante River Watershed Partnership, in a program to remove invasive Russian olive trees.
Jacob W. Frank/Courtesy The Corps Network

I go back to the Upper Valley with Dennis Bramble and we sit in his truck on the 200-foot-long bridge over the arroyo that cuts through the bottom of the valley.

“According to Hall,” Bramble says, “this valley used to be a flat, grassy meadow, and the bridge over the creek was only five feet wide. Now the stream is 30 feet below us. The water table has dropped to there and the banks of the stream are covered with sagebrush and rabbitbush. No grass, no willows or cottonwoods. This is the place Hall was describing in his book.”

As an experiment, Bramble has built two exclosures on his land, just above the arroyo. An exclosure is a fenced-off area designed to keep cows out, not in. Deer and elk can easily get inside by jumping the fences, but Bramble says they rarely do. Small native grazers (rabbits and voles) have free access to the vegetation inside the exclosures.

We walk inside one of the exclosures and it’s obvious that there’s a lot more grass, and a lot more kinds of grasses, inside the fence.

“We only graze inside the fence in the fall,” he says. “In September, maybe October. The idea was to see what will happen if we reduce grazing pressure and the season.”

A Youth Corps volunteer stands near the river bottom of the Escalante River, where environmental groups and government agencies have been working to remove invasive Russian olive trees and restore the free-flowing river.
Chris Crisman for The Nature Conservancy

He’s walking around, bending over, looking closely at the different kinds of grasses.

“Here’s some thick spike wheatgrass. … That one’s blue gramma…some needle-and-thread here. That’s Indian rice grass over there. These are native species, but they weren’t here before we put up the fence and reduced the grazing pressure. They came back on their own. We’ve quadrupled the number of grass species without planting anything.”

In between the patches of grass there are clumps of dead rabbitbush. The rabbitbush on the outside of the fence are doing fine, very healthy. But the rabbitbush on the inside is dying.

“Are you killing the rabbitbush on purpose?” I ask.

“I’m not killing them,” he says. “The voles are killing them.”

“Voles?”

“They’re relatives of lemmings, meadow mice. They eat the same things as cows and sheep. They like grassy, open, sunny places. They were living down by the creek where it’s more moist, but when we changed the grazing to the fall, they moved up here. The problem with grazing in the early summer is the grasses don’t get high enough or dense enough, the ground stays too hot and dry for voles. They’re out-competed by cows. But if we keep the cows off until fall, the grass gets big and the ground stays moist and the voles come in, and then in the winter they eat the bark and roots of the rabbitbush, killing them, making more area for grass. I think voles are the major driver in restoring the meadows, and they do it by killing their competitors, the rabbitbush.”

“Have you explained your results to the local ranchers?” I ask.

“I don’t think they’re going to listen to me,” he says. “I’d be asking them to change their grazing practices, and there’s just too much inertia in the present system. They seem fearful of change.”

“Yes,” I say, “that may be true, but mainly I think it’s because you’re a scientist, and you’re not from around here.” I’d been told as much by more than one insider — they admit scientists are smart, but they don’t trust them.

Later, Bramble says that he disagrees with this characterization. Both Heber H. Hall and his mentor at the University of Utah, Walter P. Cottam, were members of the LDS Church, and both were conservationists.

“Cottam was a distinguished professor of botany,” Brambles says, “the first person of prominence to openly call public attention to the severe problems created by the chronic overgrazing of Utah’s public lands, and a co-founder of The Nature Conservancy. These individuals and others demonstrate that progressively oriented persons do occur in these communities, although they are uncommon. The factors that seem most influential in opening the minds of such individuals are exposure to the outside world and, especially, education.”

He thinks my theory about the underlying problem of different cosmologies is both shallow and wrong, and worse still it tends to “further poison the well in ways that will make meaningful dialogue within the community even less likely.

“It’s not the religion per se,” he says, “but rather the long-term cultural, political and economic isolation of these communities that is most responsible for the standoffs between insiders and outsiders in places like Escalante.”

 

A sign of the newer valley residents: A cairn sits atop Sugarloaf Mountain in Boulder, Utah, surrounded by poems and other offerings and flying various flags — anything from the American flag that’s there now to prayer flags to a gay pride flag to this Jolly Roger.
Ace Kvale

Link Chynoweth, bishop of Escalante’s Second Ward, is a third-generation farmer and rancher. We sit in his living room looking out the windows at the church property he manages, growing high-quality hay for horses. He’s a calm man, thinks before he speaks.

“I feel they don’t understand us,” he says. “Like, I went to a Monument Advisory Committee meeting here in Escalante in the spring, and when they opened it up for public comment all the Great Old Broads for Wilderness spoke against cattle grazing on public land. When it was my turn, I said, ‘You all speak like we’re here to make a quick buck and rape the land, and I’m here to tell you that’s not the way it is. Everybody agrees this area was overgrazed in the past. Where there were thousands of cows, now there are dozens. But I’m a conservationist, I’m not here to destroy the environment. My family’s had the permit on Cottonwood Wash for three generations. We take care of it, and I want my grandkids to care of it, too.’ ”

I confess to him, the bishop, that I’ve been wondering if there’s a way for the two sides to talk to each other, but I’ve failed to come up with anything.

“I don’t think it can happen,” he says. “So many people on my side, we don’t want to sit down with them. We’d rather stay away from them. I don’t think that’s the right approach –– we need to give input and there should be dialogue –– but do I think there will be? No. There’s too much suspicion and distrust on both sides.

 “My main focus,” he says, “is to live a good life centered on my religious beliefs. For me, the way I see it, the earth and the environment are based in the biblical story of creation –– God created the earth for man, and man is the steward over the land. But, for them, God is the earth, God is the environment.”

“Yes, exactly,” I say.

 “So that means you can’t do anything that threatens or damages the earth or the environment. What I don’t understand is, just the fact that you live on the earth damages it. I mean, if you’re going to take the cows off the monument then why not put up a sign that says ‘No humans past this point’?”

“So you’re not going to go to the ERWP meetings?” I ask.

“Well, they don’t come to ours either,” he says.

I go back to Sue Fearon and tell her what I’ve been hearing from the locals, not just Dell LeFevre and Link Chynoweth, but others who were even less diplomatic. I tell her it seems like there really is a cultural gap that has to do with different ways of answering the questions of who we are, where we came from, and where we’re going. She says I don’t know enough about the day-to-day interactions between people who live and work together down there. Fearon, for example, is the clerk for the local soil conservation district, a decidedly “insider” organization. She hunts with insiders. She even shows up, uninvited, at what she calls “the Old Man’s Club” –– retired locals who meet for breakfast in a local restaurant.

“I used to see just the differences, but now I see a lot more common ground,” she says. “The common parts are not rooted in religion, or the political stance of the politicians, or us and them. Those are the differences, the shit you have to scrape off to get the point: We’re all in this watershed, it has meaning to us as individuals, and therein lies the common ground. The difference is not about truth, it’s about perspective. I do this all the time with people in southern Utah –– we agree to disagree and then move on and, generally, have productive and respectful relationships.”

Sue’s right. I don’t live down here and perhaps it’s wrong for me to impose my theory on a cultural environment in which I am really the “outsider.” They’re going to have to figure it out for themselves. The Escalante River Watershed Partnership is an attempt to work through the problems. They’re trying to bring everybody together around the same table to find what John Wesley Powell called the “simple logic” of the community. I wish them the best of luck. 

The Escalante River from high above Scorpion Gulch in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
Ace Kvale

Scott Carrier is a writer and documentarian based in Salt Lake City; his books include Running After Antelope, published in 2001, and his radio pieces have been aired on radio shows including Hearing Voices, This American Life and All Things Considered.

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.