To escape the heat of late July my wife Kirsten and I hopped in the camper and headed for the Swift Creek Campground on the Yellowstone River which flows down the south slope of the Uinta Mountains directly south of Kings Peak. We drove from our home in Salt Lake City up I-80 over Parley’s Summit, past Park City to Highway 40 then over to Kamas and Francis and over the shoulder of the Uintas on UT-35, the road rising up to nearly 10,000 feet elevation.
The dirt road into Swift Creek Campground ends where Swift Creek flows into the Yellowstone River at the border of the High Uintas Wilderness in the Ashley National Forest at just over 8,000 feet altitude.
Except for some background Forest Service Rangers and Conservation Corps crew passing through to work on the hiking trails, we had the camp to ourselves. I had been here over 30 years ago to backpack with my brother up the Yellowstone drainage and back down the Swift Creek side. The place had not changed much and I was surprised and grateful to see it was not much busier.
Not much busier that is, except for the damned cows. It was a wet spring and the campground was still drying out. The last thing it needed was cows tramping the moist and soggy soil. But the next morning, in they came.
The camp fee was $8 a night. For a human that would pencil out to $240 per month. We leave no trace. The grazing fee in 2019 for a cow and a calf is $1.35 or 68 cents per animal per month. That is only 2 cents per night. Cows shit and piss spreading disease, eat the grass, foul the streams, erode the banks, eat and trample the flowers and stunt the growth and recruitment of aspen, cottonwood and willows. Because of the cows there is barbed wire everywhere and no predators such a wolves, throwing the entire ecosystem out of balance. For 2 cents a day.
The trail maintenance rangers can only take stock and hand equipment into the Wilderness. They were taking axes and handsaws, no power equipment. But the industrial agriculture private property in the form of cows are allowed. For 2 cents a day.
We talked to one backcountry packer (not pictured) before he went into the Wilderness to complain about the cows. He said he hated them with a passion too and spoke at length of the internal tensions of the rangers trying to protect the place and those that run our public lands for the private livestock operators. He told us how the livestock operators refuse to pay for any infrastructure and how they think they are entitled to the land and put upon by any regulation. They even brought Ammon Bundy into speak at the local high school.
When the cows came into our camp, we packed up and left. Camping in a stinking stockyard is not the experience we came and paid for. The public is sadly accustomed to the cow caused degradation. The forest, steppe and streams could be so much healthier. So much more beautiful. The land is degraded for all of us by a very few belligerent ranchers.
It would be so easy to fix. One simple thing. Remove the cows.
Grazing on public lands is a privilege, not a right. There is a lot of money ready to pay the livestock operators to cease operations on our public land. It would be so easy. So win-win.