Journalist and Torrey House Press author Jonathan Thompson publishes The Land Desk, a superb commentary on the West. You should subscribe. Even though I am familiar with the ongoing, nonsensical destruction of our public lands by private cow, I am still dismayed when I see the facts and the magnitude of this existential farce as Jonathan presents below.
Data Dump: Cows, cows, cows… … on the aridifying public lands
“The vast San Juan ranges, with a plentiful supply of choice feed, were not to remain such for many years. Like everything else that goes uncontrolled or without supervision these ranges were used selfishly with the present only in mind [leaving them] in an almost irreparable condition.”
—Franklin D. Day, “The Cattle Industry of San Juan County, Utah, 1875-1900”
Our recent time with you in the cow trashed wilds has me thinking. All the time. I have tied myself into a knot.
I am working on writing some short pieces on economics and on the cowboy myth for a grazing coalition’s new website. I piled up and reread many of my sources on the subjects, particularly economics, going all the way back to Bernard DeVoto in Harper’s from the 30’s. I have discovered nothing new, but I am feeling paralyzed by the absurdities. Economically, nobody directly involved wins on public lands livestock grazing. Not even the rancher. And economically public lands livestock grazing is utterly unnecessary to the nation. But reading all the material has vividly brought home that despite the absurdity, nothing has changed in 25 years, not even in 75 years. In fact, it is getting worse. The extractors have gained power.
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.
Our public lands could be so much better. So easily. But we manage them in an upside down fashion.
Instead of managing the land for its intrinsic value as a natural landscape for the benefit of the vast majority of the public whom owns the land, we manage them for a noisy, tiny, belligerent, special interest group. The majority of us end up financing the degradation of our own lands. It is dumb of us. We don’t need to continue.
The main threat to the health of the land in the West, hard to see although it is everywhere, is public lands ranching. Nothing does more damage to public lands than public lands ranching. Continue reading We are way upside down→
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. Continue reading Cancelling Edward Abbey’s Grazing Permit→
Utah is 90 percent urban. Much of the West is the same. Yet it is run politically as though it is mostly rural and agricultural. Most Utahns live along the urban Wasatch Front from Ogden to Provo. The Wasatch Mountains bordering the Front are in the U.S. Wasatch National Forest. Even though the Wasatch forests receive traffic like a major national park with millions of visitors per year, these forests are in the best shape of any of the national forests in the state. The reason? No cows. No sheep. No barbed wire. The public would never stand for it.
The rest of the state is a different matter. A majority of the land in Utah is public and most public land is run for and by ranchers, used up and abused by their private livestock. As a result these open lands are in sorry shape, continually overgrazed, constantly mismanaged. The land could be so much more beautiful. Instead, it is hammered, more than we know. And there is no good reason for it. Certainly not an economic one. Only a lack of public awareness allows this travesty to persist. Continue reading The Single Best Idea for America’s Best Idea→
My wife, Kirsten Allen, and I spent the last weekend in January in the San Rafael Swell, BLM managed land in central Utah. Anywhere else in the country and this area would be a national park. But in the lineup of spectacular landscapes in Utah the Swell has not made the cut. Yet.
We drove in from Castle Dale, a Mormon hamlet northwest of the Swell. The road in is all but paved. Granted it was January, but we were still a bit surprised to have the place all to ourselves. And surprised to see a visitor center and Old Spanish Trail installation on the way in to Buckhorn Wash.
One of the reasons the Swell is not a park is the resistance to public lands by rural county commissioners. Of course, Utah’s fundamentally zealous elected federal officials, all who are Mormon, are furiously working to grab public lands for their own devices as well, but the movement starts with the counties. And most of the county commissioners are ranchers or have an affinity to ranching.
Agriculture makes up less than one percent of Utah’s gross domestic product. Ranching is just a fraction of agriculture. And yet most of the state is grazed. Nothing is harder on the arid public lands of the West than private livestock grazing. Most of the land is used for grazing, the economics are minimal, the ecological costs are high, and grazing fee has once again been lowered for 2018 to $1.41 per cow/calf pair per month. The price to camp, right on the river, in the heart of the Swell, is only $6.00 per night ($180/month, were you allowed to stay that long). But you would not want to camp in this otherwise gorgeous, federally developed campground. It is full of cows and ankle deep in cowpies.
Apparently the BLM is letting the local grazing permittee use the campground as a stockyard.
The federally developed facilities in the Swell are excellent. The local treatment of the resource is abhorrent. Why do we go to the taxpayer expense to create a top notch visitor experience for the public and then foul it with some private rancher’s “hooved locusts?”
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 reduction 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.