Jonathan P. Thompson is a son of the Four Corners. He is a journalist and writer, recently penning the book River of Lost Souls (non-fiction Torrey House 2018) and Behind the Slickrock Curtain (fiction Lost Souls Press Sept. 2020). I am co-founder of Torrey House Press and while I previously followed him as an extra savvy writer of the West, I got to know him personally when he published with us. In August of this year he and Torrey House are bringing out his next book, SAGEBRUSH EMPIRE: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands. I have had a look at a first draft and am thrilled that more of his writing and perspective will soon hit the stores.Continue reading
Repost from The No Bull Sheet, 1/4/2019
We are bulldozing our public lands for a few very privileged private ranchers.
Utah’s state symbol might as well be the cowpie. We turn ourselves inside out making sure they are everywhere, all the time. In campgrounds, in national parks and monuments, in the forests, on the steppes, in our streams, all down the roads, and right there, next to your favorite picnic table. Cowpies. One might wonder why.
From my new companion blog, The No Bull Sheet
January 14, 2018, Torrey
Here in the West it is cowboys and Indians again. Or still. I believe the battle will soon turn against the cowboys.
Cliven Bundy and his deadbeat cowboy clan remain free, still owing the United States over $1 million in federal conviction fines and grazing fees, and still illegally trespassing their cows on desiccated public land. Trump came to Utah in December and signed away some two million acres of national monuments, the largest rollback of federal land protection in the nation’s history. Utah has lost the lucrative Outdoor Retailer convention. As our politicians disgracefully cheer, Gallup reports that 61% of Mormons approved of Trump in 2017.
I am trying to figure out what gives. Continue reading
I have been promoted.
The other day I was compared to and quoted on the same page as Yvon Chouinard and Peter Metcalf. Chouinard has never heard of me and Metcalf might have to be reminded, but I will take it as my moment of greatness anyway. I guy now from Monticello, from Moab before that, and perhaps New Jersey originally, got worked up about a comment I made about not wanting a gravel pit in Torrey-Teasdale on a Facebook post of his and he dedicated an article on me (and Yvon and Peter) in a faux objective, compulsively contrarian piece. The unhappy guy refers to himself as a journalist and considered reporting about me his duty. So as not to seem too flattered by the attention, I admit he comes across more as a committed victim than he does as an objective journalist.
Equal justice under law
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
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 “email@example.com”) and concerns. We hope they take this chance to begin to run the forests as other than a subsidized ranch.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Cows 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.
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