Wilderness would have been better for ranchers

  Dear HCN,
From my kitchen window, I can see the Escalante River and Del LeFevre’s old grazing allotment. Since Del traded his grazing privileges here, parts of the river bottom have begun to recover from many years of overgrazing (HCN, 4/14/03: Change comes slowly to Escalante country). Cattle grazing is still the single most environmentally destructive practice in the Escalante drainage. After twenty years living in the Escalante Canyon, I still believe it should be cow-free.

When the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance was created — in this house — 20 years ago, national monument or national park status for the Escalante Canyons seemed like a pipe dream. We advocated for wilderness designation because it seemed to be the only politically viable way to protect the land — a designation that would have allowed grazing to continue unabated in the canyons. When I spoke to ranchers about wilderness, I always told them that if they wanted to protect their lifestyle, the best way to do that was to embrace wilderness. Few agreed with me. Today, the new monument attracts outsiders that many residents wish would stay away. Adding insult to injury, these same visitors are the driving force to remove cattle.

At the same time that ranchers and other locals mounted vigorous opposition to wilderness, they began to push road development, paving Highway 12 over Boulder Mountain and the Burr Trail. If you ask Del LeFevre about this today, he’ll likely say that paving was a mistake. Although locals wanted tourism revenue, I don’t know of any who wanted outsiders coming into this community. It always seemed to me that what they really wanted was tourists opening the windows of their cars and throwing the money out without stopping. The faster they passed through, the better.

Bill Clinton’s monument designation changed the dynamics of the environmental battle that has gone on in this part of southern Utah for generations. All of a sudden, groups like Grand Canyon Trust and Trust For Public Lands opened up their purses to purchase cattle allotments, because they could justify saving a national monument from environmental degradation. This would never have happened so readily with wilderness designation. Soon, land prices rocketed, bringing more pressure on ranchers to sell to the very outsiders they so long disdained. Some did, including some of the founding ranching families of Boulder.

Ironically, the outsiders have also done what the locals have largely been unable to do — give tourists to the new monument the amenities they desire. I never thought I’d see the day of wine and cappuccino with a dinner out in Boulder.

The state environmental groups who have fought to preserve these canyons for many years now have a “cash cow,” holding up the monument as proof of what a great job they are doing. Yet, looking at the entire Escalante ecosystem, the new monument, which includes only BLM lands, continues the legacy of fragmenting the landscape. The “Grand Staircase” lacks its critical top step, the Aquarius Plateau, which is in a national forest. All of the drainages that feed the Escalante River begin on a plateau that has been sacrificed to the chain saw and the cow. Twenty years ago, we chose the politically “practical” road of seeking wilderness designation as the best way to protect these lands.

Fortunately, Bill Clinton’s visionary designation granted protections for these lands beyond our wildest dreams. Now, the Utah Wilderness Coalition is promoting a wilderness bill before Congress that leaves out the spectacular Aquarius Plateau Forest Service lands that are so integral to the Escalante Canyon ecosystem — repeating the mistaken strategy of choosing political expediency over vision.

Robert Weed Weinick
Calf Creek, Utah
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