Category Archives: Buy Outs

The Elephant in the Room is a Cow — Grazing Impacts on So. Utah Forests

Bull in the china closet

Bull in the china closet

My wife and I are both sixth generation Utahns. We own homes in both Salt Lake and Wayne counties. We were married in the Capitol Reef National Park outdoor amphitheater in 2010. Together we cherish the natural landscape of Utah, our pretty, great state. Except for one thing. We have become sensitized to the damage done by livestock grazing on public lands. Our pioneer ancestors worked hard to survive in the arid country they were charged with settling, and we admire the determination and pluck it required. But public lands ranching doesn’t make sense anymore, and the more we learn about what our forests could be, the more we see the degradation–and absence–of plant communities and wildlife habitat. There is hardly anywhere we can go outside of the wilderness areas of the Wasatch where we don’t see it. This bothers us so much we started a publishing company in part to shed more light on public land mismanagement. We also volunteered with Mary O’Brien and the Grand Canyon Trust to do grazing damage assessment and now serve on the board of directors of Wild Utah Project with Allison Jones.

I borrowed the elephant part of the title to this blog piece from our neighbor in Torrey, Chip Ward, from something he said in a recent Tom’s Dispatch post about beaver habitat destruction by ranchers. Kirsten and I feel that if there is one simple, single thing that would most improve the natural landscape of Utah it would be the cessation of public land livestock grazing. It is everywhere yet its economic benefits are miniscule and for only a very few. Currently, 97% of the Dixie, Fishlake, and Manti-La Sal National Forests in southern Utah are actively grazed by livestock. But only one percent of Utah’s gross domestic product, or economic output, is agriculture, and only a small sliver of that is from public land grazing. Yet that one percent of economic production uses 82 percent of Utah’s water and almost all of the public land. Predators like wolves, key to ecologic balance, have been eliminated. Others like coyotes, and now even crows, are hunted down by the state. Beavers have been virtually outlawed in Garfield County, just south of Wayne. Aspen, willow, and cottonwood growth have been stunted by livestock browsing.  The problem is conceptually easy to fix, but it goes largely ignored. When it isn’t ignored, reform is blocked by tiny but powerful special interest groups. In the West, the iconic cowboy and his cow remain mythical and sacred. Like the king with no clothes, the public land is exposed and much the worse for it.

Over the last four or five years we have gathered photos illustrating both the damage from livestock grazing and what the forests could be when protected from grazing. Clicking any of the photos in the gallery below will take you to a slide show where more detailed captions are available. Perhaps many of the pictures need no caption to tell the story. We often photograph “exclosures,” areas fenced off to keep livestock out in order to assess grazing impacts. Virtually all of the exclosures we find are routinely violated by the ranchers — which makes sense since it makes them look bad. Cows are also supposed to be herded away from riparian areas, but in all our forest travels we have only seen the one cowboy pictured below.

The Southern Utah Forest Service is instituting a grazing assessment and inviting comments (send emails to “grazingassessment@fs.fed.us”) and concerns. We hope they take this chance to begin to run the forests as other than a subsidized ranch.

 

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Cliven Bundy Opens the Anarchy Door

EqualJusticeUnderLaw The BLM has got its tit in a wringer. From an environmental standpoint the BLM is a classic captured agency run locally both by and for ranchers. The agency has long overlooked grazing permit infractions of all sorts. Often outside nongovernmental organizations have to sue to win enforcement of  standing laws and regulations.  The BLM’s action of enforcement has been so lax that when they do try to enforce a decades old egregious and blatant defiance of U.S. law and multiple court orders, like the unanswered defiance by Cliven Bundy, they are unable to do so.  Which opens more than one door in a good news – bad news sort of way.

That bad news is that the government is inviting anarchy.  If one guy, like Cliven Bundy with his delusions of grandeur, can defy the government by going loud with right wing media and inviting a bunch of gun toting friends to gather around, why can’t everyone start making up their own laws?  Already Utah San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman  is rallying a group to flout federal law and ride their ATV’s into a closed canyon next month.  Presumably they will take notes from Bundy and bring their guns.  Mike Noel, a Utah legislator, did the same in Paria Canyon in 2012 with no repercussions. Yet when environmental activist Tim DeChristopher practiced civil disobedience by waving a bid paddle at what turned out to be an energy auction held illegally by the BLM, he was promptly sentenced to two years in federal prison.  Utah’s federal judge Dee Benson did not allow DeChristopher’s motives to be discussed in court, only whether or not he technically broke the law.  “Equal Justice Under Law” is engraved on the front of the U.S. Supreme Court building.  When special interest groups like livestock and energy producers or rural county commissioners on ATVs can crony up with the federal courts and agencies to manage legal outcomes, we are knocking on the door of fascism.

The good news for the BLM’s tit is that Cliven Bundy appears to be a lunatic to the vast majority of rational Americans.  All the media attention on public land grazing abuse will shine some light on BLM practices and might encourage the agency to toe the line and regularly enforce existing regulations.  This attention can open the door to a little public awareness to the otherwise boring issue of public land management, particularly the damage done by livestock grazing and the irony that this grazing would largely come to and end if it were not subsidized and/or if ranchers were permitted to sell and thereby retire their permits.

It will be up to non-governmental organizations and writers alike to go through the good news door.  I’ll see what we can do at Torrey House Press with some appropriate Green Shorts.

Sage Grouse ESA Listing?

Check us out, girls.

Last Friday morning a half a dozen cars full of environmentalists, mostly, are parked on the side of a rural road waiting for dawn.  It is surprising cold, a bit below 20 degrees, and most of us are a bit under-dressed.  As suggested, we stayed in the cars, and again as suggested by the folks parked next to us, quieted down.  As the first morning twilight came on we could begin to see and hear the sage grouse males, big as turkeys, some now even out in the road, doing their spring mating ritual thing.  Fantastic.

Kirsten and I were there with the staff of Wild Utah Project to see our first sage grouse lek.  We were there with folks from the Salt Lake Hogle Zoo and were hosted by a couple of guys from the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).  I was a little surprised these guys were there with us, particularly when they started talking about grazing as “a tool.”  You can guess you are in a bit of idealogical trouble when someone starts to tell you this arid environment is better off with domestic cows.  The NRCS is part of the U.S. Dept of Agriculture is providing millions of dollars in incentives to get ranchers to take care of the land they use.  Ranchers and the ag people are running a bit scared because of the threat of sage grouse being listed next year as an endangered species.  Given that there is said to have been over 15 million birds in the sage brush oceans of the West when Europeans arrived with their cows, and now are less than 300,000, the listing is a good bet.

My question, that chilly morning, was if we enviros should be helping the ag folks try to fend off the listing, like by putting flags on barbed wire fences to keep the birds from strangling in the wire.  Much of ranching is in tough times economically.  A lot of ranchers would be happy and willing to take a buy out for their grazing permits, if it were legal.  If buyouts could be arranged on consecutive grazing allotments, the ranchers could be capitalilzed, cows would be kept out of the leks, and those fences instead of being flagged, could come down.  Listing of the sage grouse is likely the only tool that could herd the ranchers, politically, into benefiting from buyouts.  From a long term economic trend standpoint, it is clear the ranchers ought to take the buyouts now before they are forced out later when their permits get denied.

Cowpie National Monument

Beautiful, fragile, poorly managed.

Beautiful, fragile, poorly managed.

Grand Staircase Escalanate National Monument, Burr Trail (GSENM), May 20, 2013 

It doesn’t make sense to subsidize environmental degradation on public lands.  Kirsten and I went out for a couple of nights camping to the Deer Creek campground off the Burr Trail in the GSENM.  After a hike down Deer Creek for less than a mile we turned around, sad and disgusted, and came back a day early.

The campground is an oasis in the high desert red rock country.  Deer Creek runs off of Boulder Mountain toward the Escalante River and on to Lake Powell.  Along its banks are cottonwood trees, coyote willow, aspen and spring wildflowers.  That is, if the delicate area is protected from cows.  The campground is cattle guarded for the most part and was a delight.  Out of the gate, across the road and down the stream was another matter.

Leaving camp we came across the first ominous signs.  Inside the campground the spring grasses were knee high and robust.

Cattle guard and fence at campground.  Cows hang out at viewer's right.

Cattle guard and fence at campground. Cows hang out at viewer’s right.

On the other side of the fence the grass was already overgrazed and gone.  Ranchers and their apologists such as the responsible BLM agents call this a “sacrifice zone” saying that cattle will congregate along fences making things worse there than  in general elsewhere.  But in general cows are to be kept out of riparian zones.  In fact, that is where they primarily hang out.  We crossed the road and signed in at the trail head register.  Behind the first row of willows it smelled and looked like we had walked into a stock yard.  The trampled stream was at our feet and the cows were there strip mining away.

It costs a rancher $1.35 per month for a permit to graze a cow and her calf on public land.  It is the same price they paid in 1962 and 1/10 to 1/20 the going market rate and less than it costs for you to feed your gerbil.  It costs the taxpayer more to manage the ranching/permittees than the ranchers make doing it.  It’s the reason for the pejorative “welfare rancher.”  These folks couldn’t afford to keep doing it with out subsidy.

The grass, wildflowers and willows should be hip high in this riparian area.

The grass, wildflowers and willows should be hip high in this riparian area.

In addition to paying for gates and fences, the taxpayer also pays to exterminate wildlife that might threaten the cows like wolves and coyotes and even beaver (beaver are virtually outlawed by the county commissioners in Garfield County where much of the Monument is).

This whole area should be hip high in grass, wildflowers and willows.

Cow burnt.

It is wolves and other predators that keep ungulates on the move in riparian areas allowing the supporting undergrowth like the grasses, wildflowers, and the cottonwoods, aspen and willows to prosper.  That bugs ranchers so even federal agencies like the so called “Wildlife Resources” spend millions making creeksides like this one a virtual private ranch where, as if they are the only concern, there is no need to monitor and manage the cows.  A half a dozen of the hooved locusts were munching nearby.

The ranchers answer that this is their way of life.  But who gets that?  Torrey House Press is losing money, and it is my way of life, but I am not asking for subsidies.  I have to make it work or get out of the business.  The commissioners ask who I am going to put out of a job.  Great rhetoric but the wrong question.  I am not qualified to say who should have a job and who shouldn’t and the government certainly isn’t.  Ask the Soviet Union about that practice.  The market could be allowed to work it out and there are market solutions.  The conservation community is standing by ready to buyout grazing permits but only if the permits can be retired.  By current law permit retirement on BLM land literally requires an act of congress.

P1010267Cows made sense for a little while in the arid Intermountain West and the Colorado Plateau but with the advent of the railroad and easy transportation, such things as grazing need to be done on private land where it rains.  There is plenty of it east of the 100th meridian.  It is nuts to keep hammering our public treasures this way.

Exclosures – August 2012

First cup

Kirsten and I went up to the Fish Lake National Forest and camped on Thousand Lake Mountain in southern Utah for a couple of nights this last Thursday through Saturday August 16-18.  This area is just north of Torrey and we like to get up there in the summer just to get out and to do a little volunteer assessment of the management practices on these public lands.

We came away glad to have been out but distressed at how the land is being over used particularly for grazing and logging.  Working with Mary O’Brien of the Grand Canyon Trust we have become aware of how the open spaces of the public lands in the West are in a state of what Mary calls normalized degradation.  I’m afraid she is right.  The national forest above the Wasatch Front is managed for people.  These dry desert mountains in southern Utah have a multiple use directive, but the use in fact is dominated by ranching.  The contrasts are distinct.  Wildflowers are hip deep all summer in the Wasatch.  The southern meadows are grazed every year down to a 4″ stubble height.  That’s the goal, it is usually worse.  Riparian areas in particular take a beating.  Because of pressure by environmentalists some small areas called “exclosures”  have been set aside and somewhat protected from grazing.  The ecological difference in these exclosures is tremendous.  The cowboys obviously still let the cows into these protected spaces but not enough to erase the evidence of what these mountain meadows could be without public land grazing.

I have blogged about it more here and elsewhere, but the reasoning behind public land grazing defies common sense.  It is not economic.  The ranchers/livestock permittees depend heavily on subsidies for water, gates, fences, rangeland “treatments” and pasture control.  Most of them make very little money all the same.  Public land grazing is probably the number one source of public land degradation and yet the public subsidizes it.  It is a story of a very narrow special interest taking advantage of the public’s clueless largesse.  It has long been a problem and one that seems to be intractable.  At $1.35 per AUM (Animal Unit Month – one cow and calf for a month of grazing) ranchers pay the same fee to graze as they did in 1966.  Who gets such treatment today?  One way out, the best one I can see, is to give ranchers a right they do not now have and allow them to accept grazing retirement buyouts.   -Mark Bailey

Golden Saddles

Grazing in the Intermountain West does more environmental damage than any other single activity.  But ranchers have always had a choke hold on western legislators and most of the public land is grazed.  One force that could overcome the ranchers grip is the market.  Retirements of grazing permits (they are permits, not rights) are refered to sometimes as gold saddles.  There is currently such a proposal by a legislator whose name is Adam Smith. An almost-too-perfect name for a guy coming up with an “invisible hand” market based solution. With such poetic grace on its side, the grazing retirement option may be getting a little closer.  See Jodi Peterson’s article in High Country News.