Category Archives: Environment

Beaver and Goats

Kirsten's twin nehpews at Calf Creek Falls

Kirsten’s twin nephews at Calf Creek Falls

Spring is here and my wife, Kirsten, and I are poking our heads out more and looking into environmental issues. In fact, it has felt like March in Utah since early February and it is good to get out. In addition my son, Nick, has been interning for Wild Utah Project and WildEarth Guardians, both environmental agencies.  Kirsten hiked the Calf Creek Falls trail on Monday with her sister and two nephews strapped to their backs.  Nick made a run down to Moab a couple of weeks ago to visit with the Forest Service, Wild Utah Project and the Grand Canyon Trust about exotic mountain goats recently plunked down on the La Sals.

Kirsten was impressed at the amount of beaver activity in the stream along her hike.  Beaver are, of course, the original and best stream managers.  For years the folks at Grand Canyon Trust have been trying to get beaver re-introduced on Boulder Mountain and the surrounding forests.  But ranchers think beavers somehow steal water and the Garfield County Commissioners, all ranchers, wrote a letter of protest to the Forest Service vehemently protesting any beaver re-intoduction in their county.  County commissioners have amazing amount of political clout and the Forest Service folks deny them at risk of their jobs.  So Kirsten was surprised to see so much beaver activity.  She described dam after dam, wide and open and lush riparian areas big enough that migrating ducks were landing.  Our guess is that the BLM, the land managers in this case, have too much pressure from the national public at this popular spot to allow the commissioners to have their way.  Much like the forests around the Wasatch Front do not allow livestock grazing because the public would never put up with the damage.

Nick went down to Moab to visit with the Forest Service about the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources’ (DWR) introduction of mountain goats on to the La Sal Mountains last fall.  There were no mountain goats in Utah when the pioneers arrived, and all current populations in the state were transplanted from other places.  The La Sal’s have special wilderness zones established for scientists, like those at Wild Utah Project, the Grand Canyon Trust and the Forest Service, to study the effects of climate change.  Goats, as we know, eat everything and the scientists are duly concerned.  DWR is often accused of “trophy farming” and put the goats up on the mountain in defiance of current memorandums of understanding with other existing land management agencies, such as the Forest Service, in a unilateral decision to please hunters, their primary special interest constituency.

More on captured agencies and these issues as the year unfolds.

Advertisements

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

More public hurt from welfare ranching . . .

What to do about the Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s imperial control over federal land-use policy in the West?

From an essay by Christopher Ketchum in The American Prospect comes some acute observations about the power abuse in the face of common sense and at the expense of the public and the land:

“It’s almost a matter of religiosity that the real costs of ranching are paid for by the public,” says Brian Ertz, media director with the Western Watersheds Project. “Democratic and Republican congresspersons alike make their way up through political environments of extreme livestock–culture-dominated political organizations. The statehouses are dominated by livestock interests, and that’s where the federal representatives cut their teeth.”

The Cattlemen spend $2 billion to $3 billion is spent each year in state, federal, and county subsidies to support the survival of ranching on more than 250 million acres of land managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.  With that money they have purchased their own predator extermination government agency, the federally funded wolf-killing unit, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) called Wildlife Services.  Between the loss of predators and the damage done by grazing, they are slowly turning the West to dust:

The loss of “apex consumers” from ecosystems, says the report, “may be humankind’s most pervasive influence on nature.”

Ranching, by contrast, is considered one of the top causes of desertification, deforestation, and species extinction in the American West. An estimated 80 percent of the streams and riparian ecosystems in the West have been damaged by livestock grazing.

Even under a Democrat President, the Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, a Colorado Democrat, comes from a family of five generations of ranchers.  The public needs to put up a little more fuss about the management of their land by a destructive, subsidized, narrow special interest.  We hope to provide some leadership at THP.

 

Don’t photograph that cow!

I’ve been reading quite a bit about the history and current practice of grazing on public lands.  My question has always been how so few people could have such huge political clout.  The answer is complex and fascinating.  Much of the answer revolves around the power of the cowboy myth in the mind of the American and particularly in the mind of the American congressperson.  I think I will blog a bit about some current examples of both regulatory and political capture and about the harm that public land grazing does.  Here’s a current example of where the reactionary Utah congress is working on a law to make it illegal to take a picture of a cow. (HB187)  >>>more

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.

What uses most of the land and water without showing up in production?

70% of the land in Utah is public.  And 70% of that land is handed out for grazing.  Over 80% of the water used in Utah is for agriculture and most of that is to grow hay for livestock.  That is a lot of land and water.  Open this chart on the left of the State of Utah Governor Gary R. Herbert Economic Report’s figures on employment by industry as a percent of total employment: Dec. 2011.  Where’s agriculture?  The subsidized use of all that land and water isn’t producing much, particularly jobs.