Richard Spotts worked for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for 15 years as Planning and Environmental Coordinator. Prior to his retirement in 2017, Richard had other professional jobs including environmental attorney, registered lobbyist, watershed project director, and county zoning administrator. He lives in Saint George, Utah where he is an active volunteer on public lands and environmental issues.
An Open Letter to Interior Secretary Haaland: Cliven Bundy’s Chronic Trespass Grazing Must End and How to Do It
Dear Secretary Haaland and other DOI officials:
Cliven Bundy’s more than a quarter century of blatant and destructive trespass livestock grazing on federal lands must come to an end. Enough is enough. Since about 1995, this illegal grazing has continued up to the present in the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Gold Butte National Monument, the National Park Service’s (NPS) Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) designated critical habitat for the threatened Mojave desert tortoises in southern Nevada. This prolonged grazing and the associated ongoing construction of unauthorized “range improvements” violates the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, National Historic Preservation Act, Endangered Species Act, and many other laws and associated regulations. It also violates at least two previous federal court orders.
Although it took several years, the federal government solved a similar chronic trespass grazing situation in Arizona when it got Mr. Klump put in jail for contempt and placed a lien on his property. But the Department of the Interior (DOI) agencies and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have failed to try these proven solutions with Mr. Bundy. This failure contributed to the dangerous Bunkerville standoff that nearly caused a gun battle with militia members. This successful standoff by the militia then emboldened them to conduct the Malheur Refuge occupation and later the January 6th insurrection in the U.S. Capitol. Another potentially dangerous standoff may now be brewing in southern Oregon over Klamath river water.
When will the DOI and DOJ demonstrate to Mr. Bundy and his militia supporters that there is tangible accountability for their lawless actions and threats of violence? Will the Biden administration ineptly keep kicking this can down the road, as was done during the eight Obama administration years?
Before I retired, I worked for BLM from 2002 to 2017, and I nearly lost my BLM job trying to get BLM to do its job. Among many other things, I filed a whistleblower complaint on the Bundy situation. It was poorly handled and I was never allowed to see the final investigation report or the DOI response. If my complaint had been properly handled, it might have defused the situation before the Bunkerville standoff. I’ve learned that the sloth, cowardice, and incompetence of DOI and DOJ officials have enabled this situation to persist. Indeed, these federal officials share culpability with Mr. Bundy and his militia followers because they have been incapable or unwilling to do their basic jobs over many years. This pattern of appeasement must stop. Please contact me for detailed information on what has failed in the past and what is likely to work going forward. I am 69 and, if it is not asking too much, I would like to see this situation resolved before I die of old age.
In spite of hurting both economy and ecology, private livestock grazing on public lands in the U.S. continues unabated for the last century right up to today. Much of the reason can be attributed to the myth of the cowboy.
All the way back in December 1946 in Harper’s magazine, Bernard DeVoto presciently wrote, “. . . the West has chosen to base its myth on the business that was of all Western businesses, most unregardful of public rights and decencies, most exploitive, and most destructive. The Cattle Kingdom did more damage to the West than anything else in all its economy of liquidation. As a mythology, it will do even worse damage hereafter.”
“It’s cultural capture,” says Debra Donahue, a professor of law at the University of Wyoming and author of The Western Range Revisited. “The ranching industry has captured the American imagination. And they have been given a special deal at great cost to the American public.”
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.
The former lush bunchgrass prairies along the Pacific coastal mountains in central California, once home to herds of tule elk, wide-roaming grizzlies, and salmon-filled streams, carefully managed for thousands of years by Miwok and many other tribes, are now mostly grazed instead by herds of cattle. Mediterranean weeds cover the grazed pastures where coastal prairies once grew. Most of the central Coast Range mountains are in private hands and inaccessible to the public. Point Reyes National Seashore is a rare public park established to restore and protect these California plant and animal species and habitats. Continue reading The Impacts of Livestock Grazing on Biological Soil Crusts (and Climate Change)→
In every state in America, it is illegal to deposit human feces in a surface water. Poop in a creek, empty your RV sewage tank or outfall the sewage line from your cabin into a water body and hopefully you will be facing criminal charges. The reason for these laws is simple, feces of warm blooded animals harbor disease causing organisms, lots of them. Norovirus of cruise ship fame, Giardia, the beaver fever, the scourge of backpackers are among the more notorious examples. Rather than test for each and every one of these nasties, the standard test is for the fecal coliform bacteria Escherichia coli, commonly called E. coli. E. coli is used as an indicator, if it is present, the other germs are likely present as well. The lab test for fecal coliform is fairly simple and does not require a large sample size. Basically the test involves infecting a petri dish with water in question. The petri dish is incubated at human body temperature for 24 hours. Once out of the incubator the number of bacteria colonies growing in the dish are counted. The number of colonies allowed in drinking water is zero. The limit for water used for swimming or wading is 200 colonies. Continue reading Up Shit Creek→
POINT REYES,California— The National Park Service closed its public comment period on a proposed planto shoot native tule elk in Point Reyes National Seashore to make room not only for beef and dairy cattle, but for new expanded uses that will include sheep, goats, pigs, and chickens, and row crops in the Seashore. This is a very bad precedent for all of our national parks and monuments.
Numerous conservation groups, including Western Watersheds Project, Resource Renewal Institute, For Elk, Conservation Congress, Wilderness Watch, Sequoia ForestKeeper, White Shark Video/Shame of Point Reyes, John Muir Project, and Ban Single Use Plastics, as well as many concerned former National Park Service employees and individuals, are opposing the Park’s current preferred alternative, which would extend Ranchers’ lease-permits for decades. Extensive comments on the draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) were sent in by the groups asking for Alternative F—the No Ranching alternative that would restore native tule elk to more of the Seashore.
Yet questions of how many members of the public are actually being heard has arisen.
Since Point Reyes National Seashore was established in 1962, the efforts to gradually remove cattle from the park have been ongoing, although at times so prolonged that park visitors have become used to seeing herds of dairy and beef cattle graze on the fog-shrouded grasslands.
But the original intent of Congress was to restore these coastal cliffs and ridges back to a natural state for the enjoyment of the public. Ranch-leases were supposed to be monitored to make sure livestock grazing did not impair the natural resources of this special place–and we have recently found much impairment.
Barbara Moritsch, ecologist, author, and former botanist for the National Park Service at Point Reyes National Seashore explains, “Neither Point Reyes National Seashore nor the northern district of Golden Gate National Recreation Area were preserved as national parks to perpetuate cattle grazing and dairying. The ranches were purchased by the government and the ranchers were given more than adequate time to move elsewhere. The National Park Service now has an unprecedented opportunity to end ranching on our public lands in these parks–doing anything else would be a grave disservice to the American people, as well as to the incredible diversity of native plants and wildlife that actually belong on these lands.”
The proposed park management plan allows destructive levels of livestock grazing, silage growing and mowing of native vegetation to continue on 28,000 acres of national park lands in this treasured Pacific Coast landscape, despite the myriad known adverse impacts grazing has on coastal prairie, riparian systems, springs, wetlands, and coastal dune vegetation.
The 1916 Organic Act that formed the National Park Service mandated that natural resources on park lands shall not be impaired. The Point Reyes National Seashore legislation specifically mandates that this special coastline be “protected” and “restored.” Damaging livestock grazing, however, has been allowed to persist for decades, and the damage to the high-value resources of the Seashore has been ongoing and worsening.
“I have seen coho salmon streams eroded from heavy trampling by the hooves of beef cattle, native bunchgrasses grazed out of existence, and noxious weeds spread across this once lush park,” said Laura Cunningham, California Director of Western Watersheds Project. “This could be the Yellowstone of the Pacific Coast with elk and wildlife roaming freely, instead of more beef and dairy cattle.” Cunningham grew up in the Bay Area and has hiked and watched the elk since the 1980s at Point Reyes National Seashore.
In contrast to the vast herds of cattle, there are only 124 free-roaming native tule elk in the Drake’s Beach herd. Elk migrate into cattle ranches, tangle with barbed wire fences, and sometimes become injured. Yet instead of reducing the livestock or eliminating them completely, the park is proposing to haze elk out of the cattle pastures or even “lethally removing them.”
That’s when San Francisco resident Diana Oppenheim made her move. “It’s shocking to me that the park would kill elk, and so many cows would be allowed in this beautiful national seashore.”
Documentary filmmaker Skyler Thomas agreed. “What I witnessed didn’t belong anywhere in a compassionate universe, but it certainly had no place within a national seashore renowned for its beauty, scenery, and wildlife. It was like taking a black marker and scribbling all over the Mona Lisa. The natural wonders of the seashore are rare. Humans exploiting animals and the planet for profit is not. Recognition of this fact is the very reason this seashore was created.”
Oppenheim, who had been a park volunteer helping to restore native dune rare plants at Point Reyes National Seashore, formed a grassroots group For Elk in order to get the public more involved. Thomas, of White Shark Video, teamed up to start making documentary videos filming the cattle damage in the park, including a longer documentary: The Shame of Point Reyes. The groups actively volunteered for months to engage the wider public and educate them about this elk controversy, hosting film screenings, tables at food festivals, panel discussions, and protests at public meetings. The educational push was a success, and many more Bay Area people became aware of the plight of the tule elk at Point Reyes. For Elk volunteers garnered nearly 700 signed comment forms from people who often added personalized hand-written sentences to their comments. Oppenheim collected the 700 comments and handed them in a large box in person at the park headquarters.
Yet the park service refused to accept these comments, causing consternation among elk advocates.
Questions abound about how far the National Park Service can use its discretion to limit public comments under the National Environmental Policy Act. For instance, other federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management will accept “bulk” comment forms collected by a group, and at least count them as one similar comment. But the form comments are counted. The park service refused to do even this.
The groups and individuals who signed the comment letter demanded that conservation values must be placed first. The proposed General Management Plan amendment being analyzed fails to protect and restore Point Reyes National Seashore and Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
“The National Park Service should be managing the National Seashore for the benefit of wildlife and the natural ecology. Emphasizing livestock ranching while subsidizing welfare ranchers is a takings of public land. Livestock don’t belong on public lands in general and certainly not in a Seashore where fecal matter can get into the ocean. This disastrous plan must be stopped,” said Denise Boggs, Director of Conservation Congress.
Ara Marderosian, Director of Sequoia ForestKeeper, said, “the agency had thirty years to figure out that the National Park should protect tule elk, but instead the Service proposes to be part of the global climate crisis by enabling more livestock grazing on public lands to continue to produce methane and other toxic waste that will foul the water and air of the National Seashore where children play.”
The conservation community seeks to bring back the coastal prairies that once clothed the peninsula and ridgelines, and take down the fences that currently confine the elk. A Final Environmental Impact Statement is due out most likely in November 2019. Oppenheim, Thomas, and the groups Western Watersheds Project and For Elk vowed to keep pushing the park to accept all public comments, and finally end ranching at the Seashore.
Contributed by Chip Ward, author of Stony Mesa Sagas, Torrey House Press (2017). This essay was originally published on Chip’s personal Facebook page.
Like most American kids in the fifties I grew up with cowboys, not the real ones who limp and spit but the heroes on television. Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger, Wild Bill Hicock and other television characters too numerous to name taught me that the world had good guys and bad guys. In my developing childhood brain complexity was dismissed and the binary circuit that divides the world into us and them, the righteous and the damned, was built.
The good guys won with guns. Guns were ubiquitous and although lots of guys got shot there was no blood pooling on the floor or spattered across the wall. Messy agony was also absent. Good guys got shoulder wounds and bad guys died dramatically but without screaming. Bystanders never got hit because collateral damage, after all, might muddy the clear divide between good and evil. Likewise, the inevitable gunfights between cowboys and Indians never involved women and children and the savages always started the fight. And the Indians who showed up on screen were mostly indistinguishable from each other and rode in whooping packs like wolves except for Tonto who had seen the light and became a good guy helper. All of this, of course, was pure bullshit. The themes and worldview of those programs had less to do with actual American history and were more about Cold War fears and ideology. A nation traumatized by a Great Depression and a Second World War was threatened by new unfathomably lethal nuclear weapons and so we retreated into a mythic past that was reassuring and inspiring. Continue reading Growing up with cowboys→
Point Reyes, CA – Today, the National Park Service released its draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to amend the General Management Plan for the popular Bay Area parks Point Reyes National Seashore and the northern portion of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Despite public opposition to the ongoing agricultural impacts to wildlife and waterways, the draft EIS indicates the agency will manage beef and dairy cows as “integral” to the parks. This includes lethally removing any of the native tule elk that interfere with ranching operations. Continue reading Point Reyes National Seashore Proposes to Kill Native Elk and Keep Cows→
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.