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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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Many Joshua Trees Were Doomed When Lightning Strikes hit the Mojave National Preserve. On August 15, the first day of California’s lightning siege, thunderstorms rolled across the Mojave National Preserve. The Cima Dome wildfire turned the preserve into a Joshua tree graveyard. Most of the charred trees remain standing, tangible, eerily beautiful ghosts in place of living trees with their crooked beauty. The ghosts will wither and the 43,273 acres of the Dome fire will be despoiled. Los Angeles Times

Getting California Grapes Off the Vine Before Fire and Smoke Ruin Them means depending on vineyard workers who are largely undocumented, and in terms of COVID-19 risk, poorly protected. The wildfires, which have so far collectively burned more than 1.6 million acres in Northern California, sparked right at the beginning of Sonoma County’s grape harvest. And they’re adding to the hazards already faced by some of the country’s poorest and least visible laborers. Gabriel Machabanski, associate director of a workers’ rights organization in Sonoma County, said “Since March, there has been so little work for low-wage workers such as day laborers and seasonal farmworkers; the current situation lends itself, more so than usual, to exploitation by employers.” A photo essay: nighttime harvesting near fires. Civil Eats

One of the Worst COVID-19 Hotspots Is Now an Epicenter of Effective Contact Tracing. After infections are identified, a team of 35 people fans out after to rapidly test people, isolate the infected and visit the homes of any who may have been exposed. Both the White Mountain Apache and nearby Navajo Nation experienced some of the country’s worst infection rates, yet both began to turn things around, in part with robust contact tracing. “We’re seen a significant decline in cases on the reservation at the same time that things were on fire for the rest of the state,” said one local epidemiologist. High Country News

Feral Pigs Change Ecosystems and Human Lives, from Texas to Montana to Saskatchewan. There are as many as 9 million feral swine across the U.S.; populations have expanded from about 17 states to 38 over the last three decades. Texas has about 1.5 million and spends upwards of $4 million annually controlling them, with little hope of eradication. Florida, Georgia, and California also have vast populations. “Pig populations are completely out of control,” said one expert. “The efforts to deal with them are about one percent of what’s currently needed.” The province of Saskatchewan may soon have more wild pigs than people. Montana’s new education campaign, “Squeal on Pigs,” is designed to push residents to report sightings to 24-hour hotline, alerting specialists in pig elimination. Undark

Articles Worth Reading: August 31, 2020

Upending Plans to Mine Precious Metals Near Alaska’s Bristol Bay, the Army Corps of Engineers Throws a New Hurdle. The Corps, which a month ago said the Pebble Mine would pose no environmental risk, now says it would mean trouble for the sockeye salmon that thrive in the area. After opposition from presidential son Donald Trump Jr. and Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, who have both been fishing in Bristol Bay, the Corps threw a new hurdle that could thwart federal permitting, finding that “discharge at the mine site would cause unavoidable adverse impacts to aquatic resources.” Also, a scientist studying the robustness of the sockeye population reports that an unusual, ancestral breed of salmon would be at risk from the mine. E&E News Hakai Magazine

The Redwoods in California’s Oldest State Park Withstood a Wildfire that tore through the area. Reporters found that fears were unrealized that many of the trees, some up to 2,000 years old, had been destroyed. And a relieved scientist pointed out that redwood forests evolved to withstand fire. Associated Press

Colorado’s Governor Is Focused on Promoting San Luis Valley Farmers’ New Approach to dealing with the increasing aridity of an area that is the epicenter of the state’s drought. Quinoa and hemp replace barley and tomatoes, and farmers form local districts to control groundwater use. Denver Post

California Sues to Block New Federal Rules Allowing Farmers Access to So Much Water from the state’s largest river systems that extinction for the delta smelt and two different salmon species could be inevitable. Two huge networks of dams and canals — whose construction led directly to the dwindling of fish populations — control water distribution to farms that supply one-third of the country’s vegetables and half of its nuts and fruit; scientists have been pressured to speed up their evaluations of the threat. KQED

Three Texas Cities Are Models of Efficient and Innovative Water Use. Austin adopted a 100-year water plan in 2018 calling for such advanced conservation and recycling programs that the city anticipates supplying a healthy share of its future water demand by reengineering its water system as a water collection and recycling loop. El Paso cut its per-capita water consumption from 205 gallons daily 30 years ago to 129 gallons today. Some of its conservation practices: subsidizing the replacement of water-wasting bathroom fixtures and regulating lawn watering. San Antonio subsidizes the distribution of digital water-flow sensors and encourages the use of native plants to replace the thirstier show species in local gardens. Circle of Blue

“Keep Immigrant Bees Out.” Environmentalists Want Honey Bees Barred from public lands in Utah. Beekeepers’ honey-bee hives sometimes travel to pollinate crops elsewhere — particularly California’s almond crop — before returning to Utah’s national forests to forage in areas free of pesticides. But honeybees are non-native. Environmentalists are petitioning to ban them from these areas, saying they may spread disease and put unnecessary pressure on native bees. Salt Lake Tribune

Shifting the Balance of Power Between Preserving Birds and Developing Energy. A 1.5-million-acre oil-and-gas development proposed in Wyoming is in the middle of a superhighway for migrating birds, and a court’s insistence on retaining federal penalties for accidental bird deaths from power lines and wind turbines. A potential go-ahead from the Interior Department could be coming soon on the project after six years of federal environmental reviews. The decision, which quoted the Harper Lee novel, saying “it’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird,” could dictate how companies operate in Wyoming for the next decade and what happens when they kill birds. E&E Daily

A Trout With Feathers: Looking At the West’s Only Aquatic Songbird. A photo essay on dippers, small gray birds that bob up and down on rocks, dive into streams, and resurface with insects in their beaks. Audubon Magazine

Articles Worth Reading: August 17, 2020

Final Approval to Drill Arctic Wildlife Refuge clears the way for an auction for oil and gas drilling rights on the 1/6 million-acre plain. Four decades of fights over the refuge have paralleled four decades of science showing the burning of fossil fuels is heating the air and the oceans and changing the climate. These changes may make it difficult to sustain the infrastructure needed for drilling. Elsewhere in Alaska, ConocoPhillips is using “chillers” to keep the warming climate from thawing the tundra under its Willow oil drilling platform on the North Slope. Washington Post Bloomberg News

California Heat Sets Records, Creates Rolling Blackouts As Fires Spawn Firenados. The combination of intense heat, dry vegetation and lightning storms has the state struggling on several fronts. The unusual and extreme phenomenon of a fire-generated tornado occurred on August 15 in the Lake Tahoe area as a new fire quickly spun out of control. A few days earlier, the Lake Fire outside Los Angeles spawned its own firenado. Rolling blackouts hit the state while in Death Valley, the temperature hit a record 130 degrees. Los Angeles Times National Public Radio Desert Sun

Arizona’s Drought Intensified as Seasonal Monsoons Again Turn Into “Nonsoons.” With temperatures in Phoenix exceeding 110 degrees for days on end and the three-month period ending in June was the second hottest and third driest in 125 years. Populous Maricopa County, including Phoenix and Scottsdale, is in a severe drought. The impact on the water levels at Lake Mead, which is now at 40 percent of capacity, will mean that Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will receive less water from the Colorado River. Arizona Water News Arizona Republic

Some Oregon Forest Land Would Be Lost as Spotted Owl Habitat if a federal Fish and Wildlife Service proposal becomes final. The proposal would take 204,653 acres, or 2 percent of the total of 9.6 Million Acres, from the area of ancient forests designated as critical habitat and set aside as habitat for the endangered owl. Oregon Public Broadcasting

With Ice Disappearing, Pacific Walruses Are Moving Sooner and Sooner to Beaches of Alaska’s Chukchi Sea. They just gathered at Point Lay at the end of July, earlier than ever before. The walruses had evolved to use floating ice as platforms for foraging and rearing their young. But for the past 13 years, after the first year of a record-low extent of sea ice, they have been moving to the Point Lay site by the tens of thousands every summer. Arctic Today

A Colorado Lab Works to Prepare the National Electric Grid for a Renewable Future. A scientist used this metaphor to describe the challenge of retrofitting the three power grids to let them handle the upcoming changes: It's like updating a reliable 1957 Chevrolet for the complex technologies and climate-related hazards of the 21st century. What was recently unveiled at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado is a proving ground for the high-tech creations and will test the impacts of battery- and hydrogen-powered energy storage systems and large increases of renewable energy. Scientific American

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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