Grazing rights trigger showdown between ranchers, BLM

Published March 1, 2001

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument sprawls for 1.9 million acres, its slick rock canyons, spectacular red and white benches, and cliffs rising nearly a mile from the desert floor. This vast range, like the rugged people who attempt to make their living off of it, can be stubborn, unyielding, and difficult to manage.

In the midst of a drought, the federal government has restricted cattle grazing here, saying the region’s fragile land needs time to heal. But many ranchers contend the action is a thinly disguised attempt by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to phase out grazing.

The dispute has escalated into a feud that now involves the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Defiant ranchers even tried to “rustle” back cattle impounded by federal agents. Authorities have threatened ranchers and cowboys with prosecution. “If these people think they can be lawless, act in a vigilante manner–I don’t think so,” said U.S. Attorney Paul Warner in Salt Lake City.

Two developments sparked the standoff. The first: After a hot, dry summer, continued drought, and a series of wildfires compromised growth on the range, monument officials ordered ranchers with grazing permits to take cattle off the summer range sooner than planned. The second: Ranchers objected to the order, which, for some, included banishment from the winter range on the monument, meaning cattle would have to be fed and pastured elsewhere.

After a few ranchers were unable or unwilling to undertake the expensive task of driving cattle off the high plateaus, federal agents did it for them. In November, BLM officials rounded up 40 head of cattle, impounded them, and announced plans to sell the animals at auction. Ranchers decided to take matters into their own hands. On election day, a group descended on a livestock auction in central Utah and, while Sevier County Sheriff Phil Barney watched, herded the cattle into trucks and took them back.

Tempers reached such a boiling point that the sheriff, who defied federal orders and allowed the cattle to be taken, said he did so to defuse a volatile “Waco situation.”

Such discord has found a spectacular setting in the Grand Staircase-Escalante, a geologic wonder surrounded by other prized federal lands: Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks to the west, Lake Powell to the south, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area to the east, Capitol Reef National Park to the northeast, and federal wilderness to the north.

Former President Bill Clinton established Grand Staircase-Escalante as a federal monument in 1996. Most of the land was in the hands of the BLM, which is part of the U.S. Department of Interior, before gaining protected monument status. Nevertheless, the locals viewed the monument’s designation as yet another effort by the federal government to gobble up private land and phase out grazing.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican, called the monument’s creation “the mother of all land grabs,” and property rights activists noted angrily that 68 percent of the land in Utah is owned by the federal government.

Lack of local control is a major issue here. For four years, area residents have predicted the BLM’s agenda for the land would merge with the objectives of conservationists and environmentalists: Run off ranchers and their cattle, curtail mining leases, limit roads and off-road vehicle access, ban hunters, and, ultimately, allow only hikers.

“Everybody here hates the BLM,” said Escalante rancher Quinn Griffin, who was ordered off his summer and winter ranges on the monument. “If the [local BLM office] burned down, you’d have a car parade going by.”

In the past, BLM officials also have faced criticism from conservationists, who contended the agency was too lenient with mining and logging groups. In recent years, the agency’s focus has changed, with a new mandate centering on the environmentalists’ vision of land stewardship.

The evolving philosophy has created an often-antagonistic relationship with ranchers. “We are required to manage this land for grazing, for wildlife, and for other multiuses,” said monument manager Kate Cannon. “Not just for today. That means that if we determine this range land cannot sustain more grazing, we must ask the permittees to move their cattle.”

Julie Cart writes for the Los Angeles Times. This article first appeared in its December 27, 2000 edition.