Category Archives: Water

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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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.

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.

Ed Firmage lets the good old boys have it.

Welfare Rancher?

In response to an article in the Salt Lake Tribune announcing that Utah State Engineer Kent Jones OK’d the use of Green River water to cool a proposed nuclear reactor, Ed Firmage Jr. posted a polished reply.  Water management in Utah is an area much in need of watch dogging.  Mike Noel makes a living by exercising a powerful conflict of interest in the government positions he holds.  It’s how welfare ranching works and just like Bernard DeVoto called it 65 years ago: “Give me the money, now get out of here.”  Berate the federal government while taking finagled federal hand outs.  Not much has changed.  Noel has a seat on the Utah State Legislature and is the executive director of the Kane County Water Conservancy District, both government jobs.  Now he is concocting a boondoggle to sell Kane County water rights to a nuclear reactor which he will use his position as state legislator to support.    Here’s Ed’s response:

Let me see if I got this right:

A former two-bit Viagra salesman, Aaron Tilton, who was GIVEN (not elected) to a term in the state senate and who promptly lost his first attempt to be ELECTED to office (even Utah voters have standards), teams up with former legislative buddy, welfare rancher, and general good old boy Mike Noel, who makes his living railing against federal subsidies (except his own), and they concoct a plan for a federally subsidized nuclear reactor (all nuclear reactors are federally subsidized) in the middle of the howling Utah desert with water from an oversubscribed and climate-threatened river–in other words, using water for speculative gain, a practice prohibited by Utah law–and this Rube Goldberg scheme is OKd by the only representative of the Utah public who will have a say in this decision, Utah’s water “engineer,” Kent Jones, who opines, in either ignorance or denial of Wall St., that building a nuclear power plant, and that in a desert, isn’t a speculative venture and a therefore illegal use of Utah water.

I guess I must be in Utah, for by comparison, the story of the golden plates sounds perfectly plausible.

Ed’s last sentence is regrettably uncivil, but his calling the crony good old boys on their crap is a civil service.  Go Ed.

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 . . . >>

American Drinking Water Gets a D-. Republicans want it to get an F.

“Bipartisan analyses have repeatedly shown that the cost of environmental regulation is exponentially cheaper than the costs of toxic cleanup and medical care.” And yet the fearful shriek that environmental regulation “kills jobs” while the hamstrung EPA can’t even adequately test or develop standards for two-thirds of the pollutants detected in water. Enough already.    . . . more>>

Our River Run Dry

The Colorado River does not make it to the sea.  It’s all used up 70 miles before it gets there, leaving the Colorado River Delta parched.  Over 75 percent of the water extracted goes to agriculture.  Whenever something about water use comes up in the press, watering lawns always comes up.  That is the wrong grass.  It’s not lawns draining the river, it’s hay.  Buying up the virtual property right of water rights from farmers and ranchers is called “water ranching.”   I’ll try to find more on that in the future.  In the meanwhile, here’s a piece from the New York Times on the river, and another interesting blog from a recent author on the subject, Jonathan Waterman (great name.)