Even today, southern Utah is comprised of mostly open space, a fascinating otherworldly landscape of fantastic rock forms punctuated by a few small towns. Located here are 5 national parks, 1 national
monument and several state parks. Accordingly, tourism has emerged as the major industry in this picturesque dry country region. But some
refuse to recognize this and continue to cling to old and outdated ways.
Those old ways include ranching, the subject of a long-standing dispute. These are small-scale ranches maintained in an industry of decreasing economic impact. Typically though, these desert terrain ranches are too small to offer sufficient grazing for the herds. As such, grazing rights for the extensive public lands are a desirable commodity. But the crusted desert soils are fragile and provide for poor grazing with their sparse plant growth.
In the interest of ending the ravages of grazing and preserving the region’s unique terrain, The Grand Canyon Trust an evironmental group based in Arizona, has been gradually purchasing and retiring
grazing rights for a period of years.
So, seven years ago an environmental group based in Arizona, the Grand Canyon Trust, began paying ranchers to give up their grazing rights when their herds, or bank accounts, had failed to thrive. By this fall, the trust had spent more than $1 million to end grazing on more than 400,000 acres.
But some feel that ranching must take precedence over preservation despite the benefit to the economic engine that is local tourism.
Michael E. Noel, a former Bureau of Land Management employee who now is a Republican state representative from southern Utah, led the charge to roll back agreements the trust had forged. Mr. Noel said the loss of the grazing allotments would hurt ranching, which would in turn deprive the area’s young people of the character-building chance to
work on the land.
“Yes, it’s a free market to buy and sell,” Mr. Noel said recently. “But if you buy it, you use it.”
By retiring the lands, he said, the trust is reneging on an implicit agreement, and “if we allow that to occur, we go down the path of eliminating all grazing on public lands.”
Interestingly enough, the manager of the 1.7 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument agrees with the strategy pursued by the trust.
Dave Hunsaker, the manager of the national monument, an area of 1.7 million acres, relies on the land bureau’s experts to settle that issue.
“The idea of grazing decisions is to achieve rangeland health objectives, No. 1,” Mr. Hunsaker said. “No. 2, it is to provide stability to those ranching operations on the monument right now. “The Grand Canyon Trust,” he said, “can provide us flexibility for the future.”
After a recent sale to the trust of grazing rights for some 25,000 acres, Mr.Noel and the Kane County Commission sprang into action.
Brent Robinson sold the 25,000-acre Clark Bench grazing allotment to a trust subsidiary in 2000, though he retains a basic distrust of environmentalists. Mr. Robinson said his intention was “to scale down a little bit” his herd of 300 head, a sizable herd in these parts.
But Mr. Noel and members of the Kane County commission were concerned enough about the potential retirement of the Clark Bench acreage that they sought out ranchers to appeal the bureau’s decision to let Mr.Hedden’s group buy it and to seek the allotment for themselves. “Most of the herds here are very small,” Mr. Noel said. “But because the income in this area is very low, those 25 to 30 cows are what make
the difference between being able to really provide for family that extra little thing. They can buy a pickup truck or send a kid to college or on a Mormon mission.“
One might be prompted to believe that ranching is still a highly profitable and thus highly desirable industry in the region. One would be wrong.
Ranching is a small and declining part of the economy of Kane and its northern neighbor, Garfield County. In several recent years, the total ranching income was in negative numbers in one county or the other. But Kane officials, after some effort, found people to seek the retired grazing permits for themselves.
And whom you ask is one of the ranchers seeking to purchase the Clark Bench rights and how will this be financed?
Trevor Stewart, one of the ranchers seeking the Clark Bench allotment, is Mr. Noel’s son-in-law. Mr. Noel said he was able to get $50,000 from the state to support Kane County when it joined Mr. Stewart’s suit.
So, Kane county would rather tear up delicate dry country terrain, undermine economically important local tourism and subsidize a dying/dead industry?
As a result, the Grand Canyon Trust has decided to discontinue further activities in Utah. But these activities have produced positive results.
The eight-year process, however, did result in some cross-pollination. As ranchers like Mr. Robinson have warily shed suspicions and made common cause with an environmental group, the trust itself is gingerly adopting ranching to achieve conservation goals.
The purchase of the Kane and Two-Mile Ranches north of Grand Canyon National Park – 1,000 acres of land and grazing allotments on an additional 830,000 acres – was recently completed by the Grand Canyon Trust and the Conservation Fund, based in Arlington, Va. Instead of retiring the allotments, they will use them, though for fewer head of cattle.
But Bill Hedden has apparently been left with a bad taste in his mouth.
“We’ve been out there dealing with this,” he said. “We solved the problems of the B.L.M., and we’re hurting the Kane County economy by buying out guys who are going bankrupt? I don’t get it.”
Of course this is just the latest battle in the long-standing war between the preservationists/environmentalists and those seeking to keep public lands available for a variety of private uses. For an extensive examination of these disputes, I highly recommend The Redrock
Chronicles, a dusty copy of which still sits on my nightstand.
Author: Watkins, T. H.
Title: The Redrock Chronicles: Saving Wild Utah
Series: Center Books on Space, Place, and Time
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Format: hc & pbk; 176 pp., maps & photos
Price: $59.95 hc; $26.00 pbk
The late T. H. Watkins focuses on southern Utah’s unprotected land in a loving testament to its warps and tangles of rock and sky. Combining history, geography, and photography, the author reports the full story of the region–from its violent geologic beginnings to the coming (and going) of pre-Puebloan peoples whose drawings still adorn rocks and caves there, from the Mormon settlement of the 1840s and 1850s to the great uranium boom of the 1950s, from the beginning of tourism and parkland protection in the 1930s to today’s controversial movement to preserve millions of acres of wild Utah land in the National Wilderness Preservation System.