The Trump administration has struck another blow to common-sense management of public lands in the West. Virtually all the spectacular country neighboring the Escalante River in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah will be reopened to cattle grazing, thanks to a new plan for managing the monument released by the Interior Department last month.
The move manages to be both anti-rancher and anti-environment.
Over the past few decades, similar deals around the West have sought to resolve conflicts between conservationists and ranchers running livestock on public lands by cooperation rather than confrontation and litigation.
In Nevada’s Great Basin National Park, for instance, ranchers who held public land grazing permits when the land became part of the park in 1986 agreed to relinquish their permits in return for being compensated by the Conservation Fund, a nonprofit conservation group.
These arrangements have attracted support from across the political spectrum. In 2001, George W. Bush’s libertarian interior secretary, Gale Norton, celebrated this approach as a “marketplace-oriented resolution for public land conflicts” — a win-win.
The labyrinthine canyon lands of the Escalante River, a magnet for adventuresome recreationists, show why the idea is such a good one. In the late 1990s, ranchers holding the grazing permits there decided they had had enough. One wanted to retire, one wanted to run his stock in less difficult terrain and a third wanted to move his operation to another state.
These willing sellers negotiated an agreement with the nonprofit Grand Canyon Trust to relinquish their grazing privileges for cash. The Utah State Division of Wildlife Resources then endorsed the idea of retiring the area from livestock grazing, Utah’s Republican governor, Michael Leavitt, signed off on it, and the Interior Department agreed, finding that it would restore a fragile and treasured gem to ecological health.
The effect on the local grazing economy was infinitesimal; over 96 percent of the original national monument remained open to grazing at the same level as before. (The area retired from grazing remained within the monument’s boundaries after President Trump drastically shrank it in 2017.)
This means ranchers — particularly those struggling to scratch out a living on hardscrabble desert lands where conservation buyers are often the only willing buyers of grazing privileges — will suffer alongside the environment.
The Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act (H.R.5737), legislation introduced in Congress by Adam Smith, a Democrat of Washington, and several co-sponsors would fix the problem, by protecting negotiated buyouts and permit retirements from the executive branch’s political whims.
Unfortunately, it faces an uphill battle. The national trade association of enterprises running livestock on public land, the Public Lands Council — seeking to preserve its membership and influence — fiercely resists retiring even a single acre of public land from grazing.
Perhaps the recklessness of the Interior Department’s latest decision will spur more members of Congress to support this sensible legislation that benefits ranchers while restoring public lands to health.
Source: NY Times Opinion, "A free-market solution to protect a spectacular landscape was working", by John Leshy.
Leshy was the general counsel at the Department of the Interior during the Clinton administration. He's also an emeritus professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law and the author of the forthcoming book “Our Common Ground,” a history of America’s public lands. He has been on the board of the Grand Canyon Trust since 2002.