Ranchers, enviros and officials seek a middle path on public-land grazing

Moving beyond stalemate to meaningful reform in Utah.

  • Mary O'Brien and Bill Hopkin, center-left and center-right, respectively, touring an allotment in Nevada where changes to the grazing regime helped restore a stream.

    BLM Nevada
  • Cattle graze on Monroe Mountain where they've stripped the new growth from the aspens on the ridgeline.

    Faith Bernstein
  • O'Brien, seated front, and Hopkin, yellow shirt, at a briefing before a tour of the Box Creek fire and fencing project on the Fishlake National Forest.

    Steven Daniels, Utah State University
  • Aspen inside and outside a 5-year-old Monroe Mountain exclosure.

    Faith Bernstein
  • Mary O'Brien identifies a grass species on an aspen understory transect on Monroe Mountain.

    Faith Bernstein

If you had never heard them talk about one another, you might assume Mary O'Brien and Bill Hopkin were enemies.

Hopkin, a sturdy 68-year-old with a shock of white hair, grew up stringing fence and tending cows in conservative, pro-ranching northern Utah. Now the grazing management specialist for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, he says he's still "at my best when I'm talking over the hood of a pickup." Cattle, he fervently believes, can help rangelands thrive.

O'Brien, also 68, is elfish and unflinchingly direct, with a big laugh. She grew up in Los Angeles, devouring Willa Cather's books and falling so in love with grasslands that she would later encourage ecology students to honor native plants by thinking of each as a person. Before joining the Grand Canyon Trust, she earned an anti-grazing reputation for arguing against introducing cows to areas formerly grazed by sheep in Hells Canyon, on the Idaho-Oregon border.

Last May, at Kanab's Amazing Earthfest, O'Brien's husband mentioned that they had been married for 45 years. "I am so sorry," Hopkin cut in. But instead of spite, his tone revealed affection and respect developed working with O'Brien to improve public-lands grazing in Utah. Though federal managers say reforms in the '60s and '70s helped heal lands damaged by settlement's grazing free-for-all, conditions on southern Utah's three national forests, the Dixie, Fishlake and Manti-La Sal, have since largely plateaued. Ninety-seven percent of their land is grazed, and roughly on the same schedule, regardless of various ecosystems' needs. As a result, biodiversity and water quality have suffered, and environmentalist lawsuits and appeals have piled up.

O'Brien and Hopkin were in Kanab to showcase a different approach: A collaboration as unlikely as Earthfest's own celebration of public lands, where yogis rub shoulders with motorheads in a county best known for opposing public-land protection.

In 2012, Hopkin, O'Brien and a dozen other diverse stakeholders hammered out recommendations to make grazing on southern Utah's national forests more ecologically sustainable, while still economically viable. That they reached consensus is surprising, given environmentalists' historic opposition to public-lands ranching and ranchers' reluctance to embrace restrictions on an already difficult business. That it happened in Utah – where O'Brien's name is practically an epithet among many ranchers – is remarkable.

But it also happened because of that dynamic. Managers and moderate environmentalists say they must build social capital to get beyond stalemate to meaningful reform, especially as the Dixie, Fishlake and Manti-La Sal move this summer to overhaul their grazing policies.

"If I want a durable solution, I need as many people to own a piece of it as possible," says Fishlake National Forest Supervisor Allen Rowley, who will lead that effort. Adds Harv Forsgren, who championed grazing reform as the regional forester overseeing Utah, Nevada and parts of Wyoming, Idaho and California: "I think it's a turning point."

Reforming grazing policy has always been tricky in the West, given ranching's outsized political and cultural clout. Livestock nosh grass on about 80 percent of Bureau of Land Management holdings, and 60 percent of national forests. For nearly two decades, the Grand Canyon Trust's now-Executive Director Bill Hedden has tried to ease that pressure on the Colorado Plateau, including by working directly with willing Utah ranchers and officials to retire grazing leases and remove cows from federal land. But that did nothing for still-grazed land, and agency support for retirements in Utah eroded during George W. Bush's tenure, Hedden says. "The basic public-lands grazing work there backed way off."

Hoping to spur broader change, O'Brien, an ecologist, began collecting data on damage the Trust and others wanted to repair. What volunteers found across the three southern Utah forests was disturbing: Livestock and wild ungulates appeared to be chewing aspen stands to death. Big trees persisted, but shoots weren't surviving to become saplings. The same was true of cottonwoods and willows. Armed with this, O'Brien helped stir up a collaborative group in 2009 that produced aspen restoration guidelines that included modifying grazing. It was on that project that she and Hopkin bonded over their concern for Utah's landscape. "When I saw some of the aspen, I was devastated," Hopkin says.

Forsgren and Rowley saw an opportunity in the aspen group and others. "There was a nucleus of players we might be able to build something with," Forsgren says, including state officials who agreed the status quo was unsustainable.

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.

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