Yes, that Edward Abbey and yes, he did hold a Bureau of Land Management grazing permit.
In the fall of 1979, I moved to Price, Utah, taking the job of Assistant Area Manager for BLM’s Price River Resource Area. One of my duties was supervising the range management program on 1.8 million acres of public land in Carbon and Emery counties, and an early task was examining case files of the 87 ranchers holding grazing permits on 113 grazing allotments in the area. Permittee files were arranged alphabetically by name, and the first one in the top drawer was Edward Abbey. I immediately asked the range conservationist, Michele Abbey (no relation), if the file was for the Edward Abbey. She assured me it was and I took the file back to my desk for perusal.
I was quite familiar with Edward Abbey’s writing. Desert Solitaire was pretty much required reading for students of wilderness and outdoor recreation in the 1970’s. Many of us liked his writing and enjoyed his other works, especially The Monkey Wrench Gang. It was considered subversive, but we identified with Hayduke nonetheless and I drove a CJ-5 Jeep with a winch because of it.
A grazing permittee’s case record is maintained in a large file folder that is divided into six separate sections. The first section contains allotment information. The Price River Allotment was located along the lower Price River at the confluence of the Price and Green Rivers. As grazing allotments go, it was small: about 3,500 acres and only 40 AUMs (Animal Unit Month, the amount of forage needed to feed one cow and her calf for one month). Small area, but with high value features, including three miles of frontage along the west side of Green River and the last five miles of the Price River and within the Desolation Canyon Wilderness Study Area, the largest WSA in the lower 48 states. The allotment is also home to a couple of endemic plant species, close to 100 archaeological sites, and favored habitat for Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. For wildlife, wildland recreation, and mostly pristine archaeological sites it is prime real estate.
The second section contains the grazing permit itself, the yearly authorizations to graze and receipts for grazing fees paid. Edward Abbey dutifully paid his grazing fees, unlike some other scofflaws we hear about. He never actually used the Price River Grazing Allotment, never turned out a single cow. The allotment had not been grazed since Abbey got the permit in the early 1970’s.
The third section of the file is really boring but important and useful. First, a little background. Grazing preference, the basis for obtaining a public lands grazing permit, is attached to a “base property.” To qualify as a base property the land must be capable of serving as a base of operations for a ranching operation and capable of providing forage to the herd for some period of time, generally from one to four months. Grazing preference is appurtenant to the base property. It is attached to the property like a tree or a permanent structure. It goes with the land, and it is not retained by the grazing permit holder when they sell or otherwise lose control of the property. In the third section of the file, there is a form filled out by the rancher wherein he or she declares the base property, provides a legal description and proof of ownership or control with a deed or lease. These matters are important because the grazing regulations provide that if a grazing permit holder loses control of the base property, the permittee’s grazing preference and permit is cancelled by operation of law. BLM has no discretion and no decision-making space in the matter. Courts have consistently upheld this regulation and ranchers have always lost when appealing the decision. It is the easiest, slam dunk way of cancelling of a grazing permit.
The base property for the Price River Allotment was a small farm along the west side of the Green River, near the base of Gunnison Butte. The farm was known as Willow Bend, however after Abbey, Sleight and friends arrived, Green River locals referred to it as the Hippy Place. It lies about 12 miles north of the City of Green River’s Main Street and six miles downriver from the allotment. In Edward Abbey’s case, the grazing permit was solely in his name. The deed to the base property was to Edward Abbey and Ken Sleight. Had I just discovered Seldom Seen Smith’s Green River melon farm in the Monkey Wrench Gang?
The deed to Edward Abbey and Ken Sleight was a simple quitclaim deed, perfectly legal, but also suspect. With a quitclaim deed, the seller delivers to the purchaser any and all interest the seller may have in the property. There is no guarantee the seller has any interest to convey. That is how I can legally sell you a quitclaim deed to the Brooklyn Bridge.
Having a curious mind, my next stop was the Emery County Recorder’s office to research the title and land ownership. The base property had been owned by a large, multigenerational family. A couple of generations had died off without wills so the property was divided in probate courts, split into 966, parts, each an undivided interest in the farm. The fractional owner who deeded the property to Abbey and Slight had something like a 22/966ths undivided interest in the property. The title was so cloudy that, by the end, I thought I might own it.
In 1981, BLM sent a certified letter to Mr. Abbey, grazing permit holder, asking him to prove ownership or control of the base property. Failure to do so would result in the grazing preference and permit being cancelled. Abbey never replied and we sent a final decision cancelling the grazing permit and preference. Through all of this, I never met Abbey face to face. I did meet him eventually coincident to his intense affair with a BLM seasonal river ranger, but that story is for another day.
What gets cancelled does not always stay cancelled. My intention was to leave the Price River Allotment vacant and home to wildlife, river runners, and spirits of the ancients. It held only marginal value for cattle grazing, and grazing was in direct conflict with the high value recreation use, multiday river trips. The allotment included two beaches and campsites frequented by river runners and trail to a popular rock art and habitation site. However, BLM management had other ideas. A rancher named Gary Ekker owned a large farm adjacent to the Hippy Place. He applied for the Price River Allotment permit and preference. It was granted by BLM. Mr. Ekker allowed certain BLM managers access to his ranch and use of his blinds for waterfowl hunting. That may have somehow influenced the decision.
In 1987, BLM facilitated the buyout of grazing preference on four allotments, totaling over 120,000 acres. These allotments include all of Gray Canyon west of the Green River except for the Price River Allotment. The ranchers were paid by sportsman groups to relinquish their permits to BLM. BLM prepared a land use plan dedicating all vegetative resources to wildlife, watershed, and recreation uses, and excluding all domestic livestock. The four retired allotments were combined into what is known as the Gray Canyon Wildland Area. Stuck right in the middle of it all, like an abscessed wound, was the Price River Grazing Allotment. The planning decision specified that if the Price River Allotment permit were ever vacated, it would be incorporated into the Gray Canyon Wildland.
The allotment permit passed to another owner and continued to be grazed. In the early 1990s, we learned the grazing was causing direct impacts to a large archaeological site. Cattle were trailing through a Fremont Indian village site. The trail was accelerating erosion, causing the exposure and erosion of at least two pit houses and scattering artifacts. Fencing was considered to protect the site but was never implemented. Cattle grazing was also suppressing reproduction of cottonwood trees in two popular river campsites and befouling the campsite beaches.
Nearly twenty-five years elapsed between the time of Edward Abbey’s permit cancellation until the permit was retired again in 2005. Price River Allotment really completes the Gray Canyon Wildland with its rivers and canyons, and it remains livestock free today.
After creation of Gray Canyon Wildland, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources re-introduced Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. This symbol of wilderness had been wiped out by market hunting and diseases transmitted by domestic sheep in the early 1900s. Today, the wild sheep are thriving in their former homeland and are a delight to for visitors to observe and enjoy. The bighorn are also treasured by hunters who vie for a once in a lifetime opportunity for a trophy ram. Pristine beaches welcome tired river runners at the end of their day, and a new generation of cottonwood trees assures them shade for years to come. Yellow blanket flower that grows only on the sediments of Gray Canyon thrive. Their brilliant blooms and spicy scent announce the arrival of May. The archaeological sites bear silent testimony to 8,000 years of people on this remarkable landscape. I hope Edward Abbey would be pleased.