A Strategy to Restore Western Grasslands Meets With Local Resistance

A Strategy to Restore Western Grasslands Meets With Local Resistance

Kevin Moloney for The New York Times

The edge of Escalante Canyon in Utah is shown in a composite of images. Standing at the right is Bill Hedden, the leader of an effort to retire grazing rights in the hope of preserving the area’s delicate ecosystem.

Kevin Moloney for The New York Times

Brent Robinson, with his sons Tyler and Quincy, recently relinquished his grazing rights on public lands.

December 1, 2005
A Strategy to Restore Western Grasslands Meets With Local Resistance
By FELICITY BARRINGER

BOULDER, Utah – No cows remain on the federal lands set aside for grazing here above the Escalante River.

At first glance, this would seem a boon to land and cow alike. The layered rockscape just west of this small town is immense, rolling from the river toward the sky. The grass is thin and dry. The soil, the same. How fat could a cow get?

So, seven years ago an environmental group based in Arizona, the Grand Canyon Trust, began paying ranchers to give up their grazing rights when their herds, or bank accounts, had failed to thrive. By this fall, the trust had spent more than $1 million to end grazing on more than 400,000 acres.

The deals seemed to suit all concerned, until a group of local officials decided that they were bad for the local economy and a threat to the ancestral tradition of living off the land. The group set out to end this latest, uncharacteristically civil chapter in the fraught history of cattlemen, environmentalists and dueling visions of the West’s future.

Michael E. Noel, a former Bureau of Land Management employee who now is a Republican state representative from southern Utah, led the charge to roll back agreements the trust had forged. Mr. Noel said the loss of the grazing allotments would hurt ranching, which would in turn deprive the area’s young people of the character-building chance to work on the land.

"Yes, it’s a free market to buy and sell," Mr. Noel said recently. "But if you buy it, you use it."

By retiring the lands, he said, the trust is reneging on an implicit agreement, and "if we allow that to occur, we go down the path of eliminating all grazing on public lands."

The Grand Canyon Trust’s strategy had been to look amid Utah’s ancient russet cathedrals for lands that needed a long rest from grazing. If the rancher with the grazing rights wanted to relinquish them to the Interior Department, the trust would pay him to do so.

One deal involved simply paying a rancher to relinquish his grazing rights and find new pastures or reduce his herd. The trust also started a round of musical chairs, paying three ranchers to yield their allotments, then consolidating cattle on one grazing area while leaving the riverbanks free of livestock.

In tandem with the trust’s efforts, the federal land bureau was conducting environmental reviews that tended to find that grazing should end on the acreage at issue.

Bill Hedden, the executive director of the Grand Canyon Trust, said he could not understand why his efforts, involving transactions between a willing buyer and willing sellers, seemed a threat to Mr. Noel.

Mr. Hedden said he had hoped to create a situation with no losers. Ranchers could consolidate their herds in more congenial settings. Federal officials could bar grazing during a drought without bankrupting ranchers. The trust, dedicated to preserving the Colorado plateau, could show its financial supporters results.

Besides, he said, the land in question is marginal economically and at risk environmentally.

Pointing to the soil’s crust, a mat splotched with bacterial growths that replenish soil nitrogen, Mr. Hedden said grazing left both grass and crust in tatters.

"We don’t know how long this land takes to heal," he said.

But given the resistance of local officials, Mr. Hedden is shelving the strategies he used here.

The arc of his efforts to preserve the plateau says much about the evolution of the environmental movement in the West, where the fight over grazing goes back years. Anger over the government’s stewardship of public lands helped feed the Sagebrush Rebellion, which in turn fed the Republican revolution of the 1980’s.

In the years since, the canyons that lace the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument near here drew cows and hikers. The cows sought forage on the banks of the Escalante River; the hikers sought spiritual forage in the same places. They did not mix well.

Throughout the 80’s era of state rebellion against the Bureau of Land Management and the 90’s period of criticism of grazing policies by environmentalists, the Interior Department was buffeted with lawsuits.

Grazing, in the view of local ranchers and officials like Mr. Noel, "can be one of the best tools to use to improve watersheds, to improve forage, to improve soil structure on public lands." Grass grows better when cut back, Mr. Noel said. Manure can improve the soil.

Dave Hunsaker, the manager of the national monument, an area of 1.7 million acres, relies on the land bureau’s experts to settle that issue.

"The idea of grazing decisions is to achieve rangeland health objectives, No. 1," Mr. Hunsaker said. "No. 2, it is to provide stability to those ranching operations on the monument right now.

"The Grand Canyon Trust," he said, "can provide us flexibility for the future."

Brent Robinson sold the 25,000-acre Clark Bench grazing allotment to a trust subsidiary in 2000, though he retains a basic distrust of environmentalists. Mr. Robinson said his intention was "to scale down a little bit" his herd of 300 head, a sizable herd in these parts.

But Mr. Noel and members of the Kane County commission were concerned enough about the potential retirement of the Clark Bench acreage that they sought out ranchers to appeal the bureau’s decision to let Mr. Hedden’s group buy it and to seek the allotment for themselves.

"Most of the herds here are very small," Mr. Noel said. "But because the income in this area is very low, those 25 to 30 cows are what make the difference between being able to really provide for family that extra little thing. They can buy a pickup truck or send a kid to college or on a Mormon mission."

Ranching is a small and declining part of the economy of Kane and its northern neighbor, Garfield County. In several recent years, the total ranching income was in negative numbers in one county or the other. But Kane officials, after some effort, found people to seek the retired grazing permits for themselves.

Trevor Stewart, one of the ranchers seeking the Clark Bench allotment, is Mr. Noel’s son-in-law. Mr. Noel said he was able to get $50,000 from the state to support Kane County when it joined Mr. Stewart’s suit.

The county’s challenge before an administrative law judge in the Interior Department is pending. But even the remote prospect that the complex choreography of ending the grazing might have gone for naught has been enough to dissuade the Grand Canyon Trust from doing more in Utah, Mr. Hedden said.

The eight-year process, however, did result in some cross-pollination. As ranchers like Mr. Robinson have warily shed suspicions and made common cause with an environmental group, the trust itself is gingerly adopting ranching to achieve conservation goals.

The purchase of the Kane and Two-Mile Ranches north of Grand Canyon National Park – 1,000 acres of land and grazing allotments on an additional 830,000 acres – was recently completed by the Grand Canyon Trust and the Conservation Fund, based in Arlington, Va. Instead of retiring the allotments, they will use them, though for fewer head of cattle.

By running cattle on some of the land, the groups may inoculate themselves against new lawsuits, even as they restore acreage damaged by grazing.

Mr. Hedden, however, remains quietly angry at the circumstances that led him to abandon his campaign to use free-market tools to curb grazing.

"We’ve been out there dealing with this," he said. "We solved the problems of the B.L.M., and we’re hurting the Kane County economy by buying out guys who are going bankrupt? I don’t get it."

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