In Utah, outdoor recreation is more and more of a booming business. Its impact on the land is still being understood, but there are few limits in sight.
A Fragile Landscape U.S. National Archives via Flickr
MONTICELLO, Utah — The 21st century rubs shoulders with the 19th in many parts of the West, but the juxtaposition is particularly stark in southeastern Utah. Here, cattle graze on the dry and sparse forage on public lands in San Juan County, just as they have for a century. At the same time, hikers are lured by social media and use smartphones to find arresting vistas. They take selfies in front of red cliffs whose angles were sculpted eons ago.
More than half the land in the county is federally owned and managed, and much of it is leased for cattle grazing. For two decades, environmental groups have sharply criticized the impact of grazing on the fragile ecosystems, complaining about muddied streams, forage denied to native species, and destruction of living soil on the rocks. A 2015 Bureau of Land Management inventory of rangeland health looked at the 2 million acres of grazing allotments in San Juan County and found the vast majority are not in good shape.
Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West
The argument has been sharp; ranching has been the economic and cultural fulcrum of life here for 150 years, and out-of-state cattlemen used the land even before settlers began arriving in 1890. Cattle “is what the country lent itself to,” said Troy Forrest, a program manager focusing on grazing for the state of Utah. Instead of grazing, Forrest points at another culprit behind damage to the land. “The footprint of recreation,” he said, “is much bigger.”
As local governments and state and federal agencies face the question of how to protect and preserve public lands while maximizing their economic utility, they must decide how two of the most common industries – ranching and recreation – hurt the land, and how best to prevent that.
Ranching, on a pure economic basis, has brought subsistence, not wealth. San Juan County’s 2017 per capita income was just under $25,000, lowest in Utah, according to the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis. That could change as the economy tilts toward the burgeoning outdoor industry. Seven of the 10 Utah counties whose per capita income is growing fastest have major outdoor attractions, from ski resorts to national parks to Lake Powell. Now people move and travel more, meaning new income sources for “communities that previously depended almost exclusively on tourism or traditional industries such as agriculture, ranching, and resource extraction,” said a report on San Juan County by Public Land Solutions, a recreation-strategy nonprofit.
The environmental costs of ranching, from erosion to fouling streams, have long been criticized by groups from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance to the Grand Canyon Trust. The BLM has developed elaborate metrics for the appropriate number of stock on the land, based on range conditions and the animals involved. The environmental costs of the recreation industry — both for the land and for those who use it — have gotten less public attention.
Still, researchers at places like Utah State University and Northern Arizona University for years have analyzed the footprint of outdoor recreation. While few, if any, metrics allow direct comparisons with grazing, academic and anecdotal accounts of problems, from motorized vehicles polluting the air to human waste polluting the water, show public lands pay a price for recreation. Land managers must decide how to reduce that cost.
The recreation industry is a $412 billion behemoth that contributes 2.2 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, and brings $12 billion into Utah’s economy. For years, environmentalists believed that outdoor recreation would inculcate a love for the land and a desire to see it protected. “It’s probably vital that people are allowed to experience those resources in an appropriate way, to build a constituency that supports more land being put aside from the ecosystem perspective,” said Christopher A. Monz, a professor of recreation and resources management at Utah State in Logan.
Over the past decade, national parks in Utah have seen a rapid increase in visitors, thanks in part to the state’s “Mighty 5” tourism campaign. Zion National Park had 4.3 million visitors in 2018, putting it fourth — ahead of Yellowstone National Park — in the ranks of the nation’s most-visited parks. Arches National Park had 1.7 million, up 80 percent in a decade. But, while stadiums or theaters have built-in capacity limits, most public lands don’t. Reservation systems have been proposed for people at Zion and for cars at Arches; the Interior Department recently shelved the Arches plan.
“Rather than embrace a model of what is sustainable for the resource, and what experiences do we want to have,” said Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons, “we have embraced this model of wanting more people recreating, because more people recreating would care more about” public lands. Instead, he believes that “people recreating are not falling in love with the place, but the lifestyle of recreating.” An example: a 2012 YouTube video entitled “World’s Largest Rope Swing” has been viewed 27 million times. It shows bungee jumping and swinging off Corona Arch, on Utah state lands near Moab, a recreation hub north of Monticello. [The practice has since been banned.]
A 2018 Center for Western Priorities report notes the industry annually attracts nearly 33 million visitors and generates 110,000 jobs in Utah. In San Juan County, the federal Bureau of Land Management’s Monticello field office counted 418,684 visitors in 2016, a 64 percent increase from 2014. (Since BLM lands have no turnstiles, visitation numbers are best estimates based on things like campground use, trailhead registers and traffic counters.) All this was before the highly visible debate over President Obama’s designation of Bears Ears National Monument at the end of 2016, or President Trump’s decision a year later to make it 86 percent smaller.
In 2012, the BLM estimates, recreation contributed $8.7 million in wages in the country and $17 million in economic output to San Juan County. In 2018, the county government voted to make Bears Ears the centerpiece of its “Monumental Campaign” — an advertising effort using billboards and social media to lure visitors from Los Angeles, Denver, and Phoenix.
New visitors to Bears Ears will find little or no protection of the many sites of native American rock art or historical dwellings. “Visitation is the No. 1 threat to the cultural resources of Bears Ears,” said Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa. HIs group, which works to educate visitors about the history and culture of that section of Bears Ears, is supported by contributions from outdoor recreation businesses like the North Face and Patagonia that seek more protection for public lands.
Friends of Cedar Mesa sends out volunteers it calls “ambassadors” who can “introduce themselves to people visiting Bears Ears and say: ‘You probably know this art is fragile. This is how we protect it,’” Ewing said.
Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management
In addition to fragile archeological and cultural artifacts, Bears Ears is threatened by an unwelcome byproduct of tourism. “We are seeing increasingly the simple issue of human waste management,” Ewing said. Comb Ridge, a site of ancient dwellings created under a rock ledge, has a YouTube video but “not a single restroom for 25 miles.” Preserving the area, he said, “starts with a management plan that is thoughtful and strategic to deal with visitors. Without a strategy, we’re letting the internet manage it.”
Jordan Smith runs the Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism at Utah State University which tracks correlations between internet postings about scenic spots and subsequent visitation. “We’re seeing a lot of places getting posted about that are off the beaten path — more dispersed recreation areas. We are leveraging that technology to measure ... use.” What are some recreation impacts? Changes in birdsongs. “There are changes in the vocalization of certain species,” Smith said “that are now having to compete with the sound” of all-terrain vehicles.
Like Ewing, Carl Fisher of Save Our Canyons called for a more sustainable recreation and visitation strategy. “Recreation has always been a thing we accommodate” on public lands, he said, “but slowly people are beginning to realize we’re seeing damage: user-created trails, we’re seeing weeds and erosive activities that are fundamentally changing ... our landscapes.”
Reservation systems, like the plan just abandoned in Arches, are advocated by groups like the National Parks Conservation Association, whose southwest regional director, David Nimkin, said they are also controversial. “You start talking about turning off a system that is all about encouraging people to come, to visit, to spend. That’s the hard part.” Nevertheless, he said, “we’re really focused on the utility of some kind of timed-entry system.”
A reservation system can grate on local residents. “Most westerners, particularly folks with a lot of years under their belt, we’re not used to that kind of thing,” said John Steiger, a former regional solicitor for the Interior Department. “Entrance fees. Reservations on top of that. It’s anathema to western sensibilities.” Around Moab, “folks who do feel overcrowding is impairing their park experience might very well be in the minority,” he said.
For some, it is the visitor experience that needs the most protection. For others, it is the footprints of earlier civilizations — the rock art and rock dwellings. Scientists and environmentalists focus on something even more ancient — the thin soil over the rocks containing a web of bacteria, moss and lichen that is alive and makes up what are called cryptobiotic soils. When they are crushed, an ecosystem that took centuries to develop is lost.
Damage to this cryptobiotic crust has been one of the main complaints about cattle’s impact in arid regions. “One of the greatest threats to these living soil crusts is compaction,” and other disturbance, said Sue Bellagamba, the Canyonlands Regional Director for the Nature Conservancy. “It can occur from a human footprint, the track of an ATV” — all-terrain vehicle — “a cow footprint or whatever. It isn’t which one has the greatest impact. It’s the cumulative impact of all of these.”
She also believes in tools to limit visitor numbers. A key problem, she said, is that people enjoying public lands “have different values. Solitude — that’s one value, if someone goes outdoors and values solitude. Another person may want to go out with a bunch of friends and have a good time.” She added, “People used to come for the scenery, now they come for the scene. But that value set is just as valid as another.”
Troy Forrest, the Utah official working with the grazing industry, has his own value set. Ranching, he said, teaches young people problem-solving skills. “I don’t want to lose that in our country. Livestock grazing has some of those … values. They are part of our heritage.” The damage cows do? “I believe we can get a handle on that,” he added. “Recreation done wrong — I don’t think we have got a handle on it.”
Edited by Geoff McGhee.
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It isn't people who have infected almost every free-running stream in the West with Giardia. It's cattle. Growing up, I regularly drank water from mountain streams in Idaho and Oregon. I wouldn't now. They've all been infected, due to USFS and BLM providing subsidized grazing rights to all comers. I.e., we all paid to have our mountain and desert water ruined by disease. That said, some types of tourism also do great harm. The yahoos who desecrate and tear up fragile environments with ATMs are also a scourge. Many public lands in the West should be limited to horseback and hiking entry.
In one of many ironies swirling around southeastern Utah, the largest working cattle ranch there, Dugout Ranch adjacent to Canyonlands National Park, is owned by The Nature Conservancy.
Grazing rights should be fazed out. More important to leave the food for winter grazing for elk. Grazing fees does not meet the managing cost to the government. It has never been anything but a give away to the rich ranchers in the first place. Anyone not supporting doing away with them has lost my vote.
Where to start? First of all, if it wasn't for hefty government subsidies of everything from grazing fees to irrigation water to pickup trucks, the arid Southwest wouldn't have ANY cattle ranching. BTW, public lands beef accounts for less than 3% of the beef we consume in this country. Second, the vast bulk of recreation (non-motorized) occurs within 1/4 mile of a road,which means it ought it be fairly easy to manage, given adequate funding. Cows, however, are everywhere. They especially love to lounge, and poop, under overhangs, many of which contain antiquities. Speaking of poop, the average human poop probably weighs a pound or less and occurs only once a day, if you're lucky. A fresh cow pie, however weighs up to 20 lbs and occurs several times a day, everywhere, even in water courses. Most hikers don't poop in creeks or potholes. Finally, the arid places in the southwest did not evolve with heavy, stationary ungulates. The biggest things out here before cows were mule deer, which move all over the landscape in relatively small groups. Cattle evolved in swampy country, which is why they love to hang out in creeks and river bottoms. Mr. Forrest's assertions that "cattle is what the country lent itself to" and that "the footprint of recreation is much bigger" are simply not true. In the late 19th century, when the first European livestock arrived here, the native grasses and forbs were simply clearcut by the sheep and cows and they've never come back. It's time to get real about cows in the desert.