Category Archives: New West

Review: All the Wrong Places: A Life Lost and Found

All the Wrong Places: A Life Lost and Found
All the Wrong Places: A Life Lost and Found by Philip Connors

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

ALL THE WRONG PLACES is a hero’s journey and the story of the emergence of one of the best of the West’s new writers.

I had the pleasure of meeting Phil Connors at an Association for the Study of Literature and Environment writer’s conference where he was a speaker. Dave Foreman was there too and the three of us had lunch along with my wife and publisher at Torrey House Press, Kirsten Allen. Kirsten ended up sitting with three men who had lost their brothers by their brother’s own hand. It was a moving experience for me, one I still feel and am grateful for. Continue reading

Where is best place for a gravel pit?

NIMBY, better yet, nowhere

(originally published in Agenda New West)

Red Rock gateway or “Gravel Pit Point?”

At the Bicknell Bottoms in Wayne County, southbound Utah Highway 24 turns west and passes through the Red Gate of the red rock Velvet Cliffs on the north and a toe of Boulder Mountain on the south. Here it enters the gorgeous Fremont River valley and the gateway communities to Capitol Reef National Park. I was at a gathering of friends and neighbors to celebrate the life and mourn the loss of the good man who built my home in the valley in Torrey. John came down from the city in the late 90’s to build my home, fell in love with the surroundings, and never left. Continue reading

Why a robust response to Bundys at Malheur is important

Equal justice under law

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U.S. Supreme Court

The immense damage I see to public lands in southern Utah caused by private livestock grazing motivated me to start Torrey House Press. The public would not put up with current land management practices if they knew about them and I want to get the word out in literature.  The land practices are absurd, and I will get to that, but what concerns me even more about the Bundys taking siege to the public buildings at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge is how it makes a mockery of the American principle of equal justice under law. Continue reading

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 such as 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.

The (unequal justice) Code of the West

c stewart

Cowboy Chris

Cowboy anarchist Cliven Bundy and Utah San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman remain free. I have been writing to Utah 2nd District Congressman Chris Stewart expressing my alarm at the situation. My point to Stewart is that if conservationist Tim DeChristopher goes straight to federal prison for violating BLM law, and is given a stiff two year sentence precisely because he is exercising his First Amendment right of free speech, then certainly these cowboys need some jail time for doing the same thing. Stewart, ever the right wing politician, doesn’t get it.

Stewart’s response:

I grew up on a dairy farm. My wife’s family still ranches in Northern Utah and Southern Idaho. I understand the importance of obeying the law, including paying grazing fees. Notwithstanding this, I was shocked as the situation played out in Nevada to see the show of force by the BLM and the National Park Service agents. I had no idea that these agencies had special tactical teams that appear more like paramilitary groups than park rangers.

It is true that America loves the cowboy. I increasingly do not. The fact that Stewart likes to wear his cowboy hat does not impress me. His sentence on the importance of obeying the law is his only acknowledgement of the issue in a full one page letter. The rest is about the citizens not respecting the federal government because it can’t be trusted. He has his facts all wrong. The BLM does not have paramilitary force. That level of force that showed up at Bunkerville was the Las Vegas Sheriff Department SWAT team. Ironically, Stewart is pressing the point in his letter to me that law enforcement ought to be local. He is ignoring the fact that it was. And the law was still outgunned by the cowboy militia and had to back off to avoid a blood bath. Overwhelming force, Stewart?

Rural cowboy militia

Rural cowboy militia

Subsequently, on May 10, Utah’s San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman led a heavily armed vigilante gang on ATV’s into Recapture Canyon, a sacred Navajo site in San Juan County that the BLM has closed to motorized vehicles. In part Lyman chose the anniversary date to publicly object to white, Mormon, San Juan County citizens not being allowed to continue to rob Navajo graves unmolested by the law.  Sheriffs from five rural Utah counties showed up to make sure the heavily armed ATV riders were able to perform federal trespass without interference. They need not have worried. The unarmed conservation community was in reasonable fear for their lives and prudently did not show up. And, I sadly point out to you Chris Stewart, neither did the BLM.

Stewart is worried about an undue show of force.  By whom, Chris?

In the West we do not practice equal justice under the law. Around Utah, if you are white, Republican, Mormon, wear a cowboy hat and are heavily armed you can break the law with impunity. You can even have the local sheriff, on horse and with hat, make way for you. On the contrary, if you interrupt the BLM in the name of conservation, without a hat and without a weapon, you go straight to prison with a maximum sentence. Such is the case today.

Happily there is a petition going around by the more sober citizens at Alliance for a Better Utah to hold the trespassers accountable.   I am gratified to see I am not the only one alarmed at the cowboy behavior going unanswered by the law.

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.

Failure of Land Use Socialism

There is nothing more harmful to the arid lands of the American West today than public land grazing.  It is ironic that the Cato Institute, the leading libertarian, conservative think tank calls the results of over a century of grazing on public lands, ” . . . a testimony to the failure of land-use socialism.”  Ouch.  70% of the over 300 million acres of public land in the West is grazed, producing less than 3% of the nation’s beef.  Agriculture is less than 1% of the western economies but uses nearly 80% of the water, much of that used to grow hay for to feed livestock.  Ranching is a tiny little special interest.  A rancher pays $1.35 per month to graze a cow and its calf.  How much do you suppose it costs to feed a gerbil for a month?  Yet the BLM, with $40 million of taxpayer stimulus money, wants to ignore the impact of grazing in their Rapid Ecoregional Assessments project to map ecological trends throughout the West.  See more here . . . >>