A recent history of land management in the Escalante region

A monumental tug of war.

 

Much of south-central Utah, from the Aquarius Plateau to the red-rock desert, has been grazed for more than a century by Mormon settlers and their descendants. But when President Clinton designated 1.9 million acres of the area’s forests, canyons and mesas as Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996, local ranchers feared that the Bureau of Land Management would start to cater just to recreationists and push their cattle out.

Click map to enlarge.
Eric Baker

But that hasn’t happened. Grazing was grandfathered in, and more than 96 percent of the monument is still open to cattle, with 102 permittees on 82 allotments. The ranchers wield a lot of political power, which is one reason that the monument’s top managers don’t stick around long. (There have been six since 1996.) The BLM is only now devising its long-overdue grazing management plan. Even some monument staffers think that “the ranchers and county governments are running the monument,” says Mary O’Brien of the nonprofit Grand Canyon Trust. “The BLM is frightened and paralyzed.”

Environmental groups had hoped for large reductions in the number of cows roaming the monument’s fragile desert soils and riparian areas, but have managed only a few small wins. In 1998, the Grand Canyon Trust began buying grazing permits from willing ranchers, eventually acquiring leases on about 344,000 acres of the monument. It relinquished some of the permits to the BLM, which closed some allotments to grazing, established some as grass banks, and reduced cattle numbers on others. Worth Brown, then-chairman of the Canyon County Ranchers Association, told a local newspaper in 2002, “The BLM is working with preservation groups to put us out of business.”

However, a federal memorandum issued that same year has made it difficult for future buyouts, by forcing the BLM to first declare that lands within grazing districts are no longer “chiefly valuable for grazing” before allowing a permit to be retired.

A cowboy drives cattle along the Hole in the Rock Road on the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, where grazing is permitted on 96 percent of the land.
Ace Kvale

And that’s a declaration the BLM has been reluctant to make in the monument, even though studies in the early 2000s indicated that roughly 65 percent of its grazing allotments failed to meet “rangeland health standards.” Another assessment in 2008 — which conservationists denounced as a surrender to ranchers — found that about 20 percent of the allotments did not meet the standards. 

Last month, the agency finally released a draft environmental impact statement for its grazing plan. The analysis includes five proposals for varying levels and amounts of grazing. The Grand Canyon Trust is trying to get the BLM to include a “Sustainable Grazing Alternative” among the options. That alternative would establish a process for allowing relinquished allotments to become permanently cow-free, allow public participation in decisions about grazing, and set a goal that livestock will not harm wildlife habitat.

Meanwhile, in mid-January, two Republican Utah senators, Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, announced their Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Grazing Protection Act, which would “preserve the grazing rights that Utah families have used for generations,” and prohibit the BLM from reducing grazing.

That protection might turn out to be a double-edged sword, though. “It’s pretty ironic that, as climate change unfolds and these guys have no grass to graze,” says Bill Hedden of the Grand Canyon Trust, which hasn’t been able to buy out a Grand Staircase permit since 2002, “all we can say to desperate ranchers who approach us about a deal is, ‘Good luck, guys, your political champions have protected you from the possibility of a voluntary buy-out.’”

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Chainsaw diplomacy