Park boss gored by grazing feud

Four-decade controversy continues in Dinosaur National Monument

  • AND THE MAN: Rancher Tim Mantle

    Matt Jenkins
  • Dinosaur National Monument and Mantle allotment

    Diane Sylvain
 

DINOSAUR, Colo. - When Dennis Ditmanson arrived as superintendent of northwest Colorado's Dinosaur National Monument in 1997, he found that river rafters and fossil enthusiasts were the least of his worries. Cattle grazing was the biggest.

Trying to tread a path between a defiant ranching family and a passionate monument staff, he stirred up a hornet's nest - and left some in his own agency questioning which way he leaned on grazing issues.

"There were differing points of view" within the Park Service about how to manage grazing here while carrying out the Park Service's primary mission to protect natural and cultural resources, Ditmanson acknowledges. "It's kind of a he-said, she-said thing."

Open-range Western grazing is allowed on only about 10 units of the national park system, mostly where Congress has grandfathered in pre-existing ranch operations. Dinosaur National Monument, which began as an 80-acre dinosaur quarry in 1915 and expanded gradually to take in 210,000 acres of sagebrush and pinon-juniper canyon country around the Green and Yampa rivers, has surrounded a number of private inholdings whose owners grazed cattle partly on the public land.

The legislation that set the monument's current boundaries in 1960 also guaranteed the inholders' grazing privileges until the Park Service acquires their land. Several inholdings have been purchased, but altogether nine ranches in the area still have grazing privileges inside the monument.

The Dinosaur controversy "demonstrates how difficult it is to manage a resource-damaging activity in an area where you're supposed to be protecting the resources," says Laura Loomis of the watchdog group National Parks Conservation Association. "You have a rancher and the Park Service who have both failed to fulfill their responsibilities."

Trying to make peace

Most of the ranchers with cattle in Dinosaur have an amicable relationship with the Park Service, but one family - the Mantles - has long been at odds with the management.

The Mantles own 520 acres within the monument, as well as ranch land outside. "My father moved in there to homestead in 1919," says Tim Mantle, who runs the ranch now. The Mantles have run cattle on their land since homesteading and have a permit to graze 65 head year-round on 32,520 acres of the monument, plus 184 head more during the summer.

Resisting Park Service attempts to limit grazing and to buy the inholdings, at times the family has even raised the prospect of pursuing commercial development, including an airstrip and ATV race track (HCN, 10/2/95: Dinosaur's monumental quiet is threatened). Buyout negotiations have ground to a halt. "They have in mind values much greater than we can pay, by several million," says Ron Everhart, deputy director of the Park Service's intermountain region.

In the back-and-forth on grazing, claiming a string of permit violations, the Park Service issued a trespass citation to the family in 1993, saying cattle had strayed out of the allotment. The family countered with a 1995 lawsuit charging that the Park Service was making it impossible for the ranch to operate on monument land.

"The agenda has been to get rid of Mantles," says Tim Mantle. "There was nothing we could do that would satisfy the Park Service, as long as we had a cow on the park property."

That was the standoff Ditmanson inherited when he left the top job at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico to replace Dinosaur Superintendent Dennis Huffman, who retired. The Mantles' lawsuit had been hanging unresolved for about two years, and Ditmanson set out to declare peace. It took him only five months to sign a settlement agreement with the Mantles.

The settlement said in part that the Park Service would develop a meaningful grazing plan for the family's allotment by Jan. 1, 2000. Theoretically, the plan would reduce arguments, providing a codified framework in which to manage impacts, addressing stocking levels, riparian area protection, and grazing rotation. But it never happened.

Doubling the cattle

Instead, a rift opened between the superintendent and his resources-management staff. Although Ditmanson says, "I'm not really comfortable commenting on those issues," the split apparently began during negotiations, when the Mantles asked that the resources management specialist who had handled their permits be taken out of the loop.

Ditmanson agreed to the family's request. The specialist, Steve Petersburg, who has worked in the monument since 1973, declines to comment on his relationship with the Mantles, but it's clear they had trouble finding common ground. Petersburg is "very passionate about the condition of the park," says Carol McCoy Brown, the monument's chief of research and resource management. "And he is not reluctant to voice his opinions."

Tim Mantle is blunt about Petersburg: "He's poison."

Once Ditmanson took over the permitting process, cattle numbers began rising. First, he recalculated the number allowed, using an old formula based on a 1964 survey of the Mantles' inholdings. Then, because the formal grazing plan got bogged down in monument offices and was not developed by the deadline, as stipulated in the settlement, the Mantles were entitled to even higher grazing levels. The net effect was that between 1997 and 2000, grazing on the family's allotment more than doubled.

The resources staff felt the Park Service was losing control, and saw evidence of overgrazing. McCoy Brown checked the allotment in the summer of 2000 and found the area around several springs "denuded of vegetation." As she was preparing to assess the impacts of the Mantles' proposal to clean out their stock ponds, the family went ahead with the work and did even more, building two spring-fed stock tanks and using a bulldozer to clear and enlarge two reservoirs.

Tim Mantle says that with last year's drought, the situation was becoming desperate. "We had cattle that didn't have a drink," he says.

"We had been talking to the park people for years, and there was no response. So finally we went ahead and performed maintenance."

But a subsequent report from the Park Service's national water resources division, which is based in Denver, noted obvious overgrazing, including "extensive destruction of the riparian habitat" around several creeks and springs as well as damage to the habitat of two species of rare orchids.

"Where the cows have been this year," Petersburg says, "is just absolutely hammered."

'Not acceptable'

The water-resources report raised eyebrows at the Park Service's regional office in Lakewood, Colo., and also raised concern there because the grazing plan was almost a year overdue. "It's not really acceptable," deputy regional director Everhart says of the missed deadline.

Defending his decisions, Ditmanson says his recalculation of cattle numbers was based on the settlement terms, and the delay on the plan was due to funding shortages, other pressing issues and the delicacy of the situation. But in July, he transferred back to New Mexico, where he is now in charge of Fort Union National Monument - the ruins of three forts, an old stone jail and a visitors' center on 720 acres.

Everhart emphasizes that Ditmanson asked for the transfer, and Ditmanson says, "I have some personal issues that I need to take care of" in New Mexico.

With Dinosaur under an interim superintendent, staffers are preparing to put out for bid to private contractors the plan for the Mantles' allotment as well as a livestock management plan for the whole monument. Nationwide, the Park Service is drawing up livestock management plans for each of its affected units, and the process isn't straightforward, says Kathy Davis, the agency's grazing coordinator.

"We don't have across-the-board standards," says Davis, "because the situation varies so much from place to place."

No grazing plan will be welcome at the Mantles' place. "The fact that the federal government can come along and surround an individual's properties and then change the rules of the game is very disturbing to me," says Tim Mantle.

But the family has no grudge against Ditmanson. "Ditmanson's a good man," says Tim Mantle. "He tried to make everything work.

Matt Jenkins is an assistant editor for HCN.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Dinosaur National Monument, 970/374-3000.
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