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Cattle or Tourists? Utahns Debate Which Is Harder on Public Lands

Felicity Barringer
Apr 2 2019

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.

Cattle Are Permitted to Graze on This Land Just Outside Canyonlands National Park, May 1972

A Fragile Landscape “Cattle are permitted to graze on this land just outside Canyonlands National Park” in Utah’s San Juan County, reads the caption from this archival image from May 1972. U.S. National Archives via Flickr
 

By Felicity Barringer

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.

Grazing allotments in San Juan County
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.

Per-Capita Income in Utah Counties, 2017

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 Varying Environmental Costs of the Way People Use Public Lands

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.

Visitors to Utah National Parks

“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.]

San Juan County Wants More Visitors to Bears Ears, Others Want More Management

Private sector employment trends in San Juan County

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.

CEDAR MESA

The Cedar Mesa Moon House in the Bears Ears National Monument.   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.”

Seeking to Understand How the Internet Drives Visitation

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.”

“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.”

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.

The Oldest Ecosystem Needing Protection

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.”

“People used to come for the scenery, now they come for the scene. But that value set is just as valid as another.”

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.”

 

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Edited by Geoff McGhee.

 

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Charles Williams Grew up in Idaho

Responding to Cattle or Tourists? Utahns Debate Which Is Harder on Public Lands

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.

4/5/2019, 7:44am

Bill Keshlear Salt Lake City

Responding to Cattle or Tourists? Utahns Debate Which Is Harder on Public Lands

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.

4/4/2019, 7:31pm

Name Withheld United States

Responding to Cattle or Tourists? Utahns Debate Which Is Harder on Public Lands

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.

4/4/2019, 3:48pm

Name Withheld United States

Responding to Cattle or Tourists? Utahns Debate Which Is Harder on Public Lands

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.

4/4/2019, 8:45am

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Montana’s National Bison Range Now Under Native Control. After 25 years of and on-again, off-again federal effort to transfer management of the range located on the Flathead Indian Reservation from the Interior Department to the Confederated Salish-Kootenai tribe, the final legal agreement was reached in December and earlier this year the transfer took place. Charkoosta

California Legislators Consider Vast Expansion of Offshore Wind. A new bill would require California to set a target of constructing 3,000 megawatts of offshore wind by 2030. Fishermen and environmentalists are still somewhat wary of offshore wind, but the bill has attracted support from labor leaders across the state. San Jose Mercury-News

Articles Worth Reading: Feb 2, 2021

On U.S. Public Lands, Can Biden Undo What Trump Has Wrought? President Biden’s ambitious agenda for public lands includes bans on oil and gas drilling and restored protections for key areas. Reversing the Trump administration’s policies, however, may be made difficult by conservative courts and rules changes. Yale Environment 360

Why Utah’s Wild Mink COVID-19 Cases Matter: In Utah, which faces similar problems to those encountered by the Netherlands last year, thousands of farmed minks have died of Covid-19. The affected sites have been forced into quarantine, and a wild mink tested positive for coronavirus last month -- the first wild animal to have naturally been infected with the virus. High Country News spoke with Dr. Anna Fagre, a virologist and veterinarian at Colorado State University, to help put the recent COVID-19 outbreak among wild minks in context. High Country News

Timber Tax Cuts Cost Oregon Towns Billions. Then Polluted Water Drove Up the Price. In rural Oregon, logging-related water contamination has threatened their access to clean, safe drinking water, forcing small towns to spend millions on new water infrastructure. The future of logging regulations remains murky for the nation’s top lumber producer. For decades, Oregon has allowed logging companies to leave fewer trees behind than in other states. Propublica/Oregonian

The Interior Department Effort to Relocate Jobs to Colorado Prompted a Mass Exodus; some 41 of 328 employes slated to move to Grand Junction, Colorado actually made the move; the rest left the agency. The Bureau of Land Management’s loss of so many longtime career employes – only 60 jobs were left in place in the Washington office -- is an example of the Trump Administration’s success the federal government. Washington Post

An Exploration of the Reasons to Cherish Microbiotic Soils. Fungi, lichen, cyanobacteria, algae, and other tiny organisms live in just the top few millimeters of soil; these crusts are critical to the health of the desert, and can be damaged repeated trampling by people, cattle, or off-road vehicles. Sierra Club

Some Ecological Damage from Trump’s Rushed Border Wall Could Be Repaired; conservationists are urging the Biden administration to remove sections of the barrier that cut across critical habitats, block migration corridors, and damage watersheds. The coalition opposing the wall has identified specific problematic sections to be potentially removed. Scientific American

Tens of Millions of Birds Pass Through Two Corridors in the West: California’s Central Valley and the Colorado River Delta. New research finds that more than 82 million birds pass through these regions during spring migration, with tree swallows concentrating in the Colorado delta and Anna’s hummingbirds in the Central Valley. This data helps define critical habitats for western birds, with up to 80 percent of some species’ populations passing through the two areas. Yale Environment 360

The Navajo Generating Station, a Major Employer and a Major Polluter on Navajo Land, has Been Demolished after Navajo and Hopi community members fought for years to close the facility. Now, Navajo and Hopi community members are outlining steps for community restoration, such as securing electricity and clean water access for residents, as well as job training. Center For Health, Environment And Justice

Articles Worth Reading: January 19, 2020

A Forever Drought Takes Hold in the West. The U.S. Drought Monitor — the nation’s official tally — shows Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico mired in “exceptional drought.” This type of drought is only supposed to happen every 50 years, but it’s now a regular occurrence. Even if rain and snow arrive in the coming months, parched soil will slurp it up, leaving less for riverbeds. Axios

“We’re Bound by That River,” one water expert said of the Colorado River, which supplies water to 40 million people. “All of us, regardless of our legal rights, regardless of what’s on paper, we need to consider how we can use less water. And we need to take action immediately.” The Colorado Basin and its water managers must juggle the laws that are decades old, new agreements and persistent aridity. The huge reservoirs of Lake Powell and Lake Mead have shrunk dramatically. Some observers say the rules governing distribution of the Colorado’s waters need to be fundamentally reimagined. Arizona Republic

Unlikely Coalitions Form to Block New Port Facilities to export fossil fuels. Teaming with Native Americans, ranchers and sportsmen, environmentalists have worked to block nearly every effort to export coal, oil and liquified natural gas from the West Coast. They just claimed another major victory this month – the latest of more than two dozen -- when a proposed coal-export terminal in Washington state was called off. Associated Press

“Fossil” Groundwater Is Being Depleted in California, and its users can’t rely on it being replenished any century soon, according to new study. If the water tucked underground for 100 centuries is used for the crops and pools of the 21st century, the fossil water stores will disappear for good. “It’s just like taking gold out of the ground, out of a mountain,” said Menso de Jong, the study’s lead author. “The gold is not going to grow back.” San Jose Mercury News

Apaches Sue to Stop First Step in Approval of Copper Mine Near Sacred Site. If an environmental study’s publication is blocked, the process of approving the mine planned by Resolution Copper might be derailed. A podcast interview with the reporter covering the controversy, Debra Utacia Krol of The Arizona Republic. KSUT

To Help Rural Economies, One-Third of Spotted Owl Habitat in Oregon Was Excluded from Protection. The size of the protected acreage has yo-yoed from one administration to the next, but this cut in protected areas is one of the biggest on record. The amount of habitat protected in the Obama administration was more than 9 million acres; the Trump administration in its final days cut that by more than 3 million acres. E&E News

Rural Coloradans Seek to Contain Light Pollution. NASA photos of Colorado from space show a widening urban white-out reaching into rural areas. The dark-sky zones that southwestern Colorado leaders are proposing in areas like the San Luis Valley would, all combined, cover more than 3,800 square miles — the largest official area protected from artificial light on the planet. Denver Post

Wildlife Take Stock of Photographers Taking Stock of Wildlife. “Animals interrupting wildlife photographers,” a thread by the Catalan journalist Joaquim Campa. Twitter

Articles Worth Reading: December 7, 2020

New Data Shows Lethal Damage to Coho Salmon Is From Tire Residue, as researchers double-down on the findings about tires’ environmental damage. One chemical, 6PPD-quinone, interacts with ozone and becomes highly toxic to Puget Sound salmon, taking out 40 to 80 percent of returning salmon before the spawn. The problem extends from Washington state, where scientists have been studying the issue, to California; tires are the largest source of microplastics in San Francisco Bay. The Seattle Times Los Angeles Times

With Legal Barriers Gone, More Westerners Are Harvesting Rain to supplement the disappearing water in the Colorado River and the Ogallala Aquifer. Rainwater harvesting—a cheap, low-barrier, low-energy method—may provide one piece of the long-term solution to water shortages in a region where climate change is intensifying droughts. Today, rainwater capture is legal in every state, though many have restrictions. A few, like Colorado, didn’t legalize it until 2016 and still restrict the total amount harvested. The Counter

A Navajo-Majority County Commission in Utah Calls for Restoring the Bears’ Ears Monument to its original size. The Trump Administration dramatically reduced the monument from 1.35 million acres to two separate areas totaling 200,000 acres. The San Juan County Commission voted 2-to-1 to make the request, with its two Navajo members in the majority. Associated Press

In the Wake of Fierce Fires, A Sudden Burst of Logging in Colorado. State foresters are overseeing wholesale mechanized tree-cutting, as tractors dig holes up to 140 acres in size are appearing among the lodgepole pines. A hot national wood-products market snaps up the lumber created in Colorado, which has never traditionally been a logging state. Across western Colorado, insect attacks on old and drought-enfeebled trees over the past decade have left 5 million acres of skeletal trees in a region climate change has made susceptible to wildfire. This year, 700,000 acres burned. Denver Post

As Insurers Blanch at Newly Calculated Wildfire Losses — $24 Billion in the U.S. in 2018, they continue to flee fire prone areas. In California alone in 20219, insurers pulled coverage from more than 230,000 homes — about 31 percent more than the year before. California regulators want to keep private insurers from fleeing the state, but know that climate change is changing everyone’s risk calculation. Bloomberg

Graphics & the West

Where California Grows Its Food

See the most detailed survey ever done of crops and land use in California. It covers nine million acres of land devoted to grapes, alfalfa, cotton, plums, you name it – food for people and animals all over the world. View map »

California's Changing Energy Mix

A look at the energy sources California utilities have used gives us insights into the state’s progress in decarbonizing its electricity supply. In 2015, 35% of total electricity generation (in-state generation plus imported electricity) came from zero-greenhouse-gas sources, which include solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear. View Graphic »

U.S. Conservation Easements

Conservation easements of various kinds cover more than 22 million acres of land in the United States, according to the National Conservation Easement Database, a public-private partnership. Take a look at our interactive map of nearly every conservation easement, with details on over 130,000 sites. View map »

 

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