Public lands grazing mixes tempers
Ranchers say they can't live without it - opponents say land can't live with it

A cow grazes along Hermosa Creek Road, one of many grazing allotments in the San Juan National Forest used by local ranchers as summer range. Opponents charge the practice with being uneconomical and highly damaging to the land./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Honoring a longstanding annual cycle, many local ranchers are bringing their cattle and sheep down from summer pasture on national forest and Bureau of Land Management lands. However, private grazing on public lands continues to stir up controversy, and one local conservation group is working with a national coalition to bring an end to what it considers to be damaging grazing in the Durango area and throughout the West.

Mark Tucker, San Juan Public Lands Rangeland Management Program Leader, oversees grazing on the public land in the vicinity of Durango and beyond. Tucker notes that grazing of these lands is nothing new and has been ongoing since the turn of the century.

“It’s been a recognized use throughout the time public lands have been in existence,” he says. “The Forest Service as an agency started billing for it somewhere around 1906.”

Currently, 118 area ranchers pay to graze more than 30,000 cows and sheep all over the San Juan National Forest. Another 114 ranchers graze their livestock on area BLM land. The base fee for these permitees is $1.35 per head of livestock per month. The permittees also are responsible for all improvements to and maintenance of the allotment.

And while grazing has been a longstanding feature locally, controversy about it is a relatively new feature, according to Tucker.

“I think a lot of the controversy is related to more consciousness about how public lands are used and more people using the land more often,” he says.

Still, Tucker argues that over the last 20 years, the San Juan Public Lands Center has worked increasingly hard to address public concerns and land conservation needs.

“We’ve been able to take the same ground that was mismanaged through the 1950s and, over time, improve the grazing system,” Tucker says. “We’ve lessened the amount of time livestock graze an area. We’ve developed off-site water resources and gotten livestock out of some riparian area, and we’ve been able to improve and maintain our native vegetation.”

However, Tucker also notes there are problems.

A pair of cows do some road time near the Hermosa Creek trail. The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association argues that Colorado ranching would not be viable without grazing allotments on public lands./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

“I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture,” he said. “We do have to spend a fair amount of time making sure permitees are living within their permits. I do think we’ve been able to do a pretty good job overall, but I don’t think we’ll be able to please everybody.”

One group that is not pleased is the Durango-based Great Old Broads for Wilderness, which is actively involved in the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign.

“We feel that grazing in general throughout the West is an uneconomical, highly destructive use of public lands,” says Ronni Egan, Great Old Broads executive director.

As a result, the Broads and the coalition are presently working with U.S. Representatives Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., and Christopher Shays, R-Conn., to introduce a bill that would create a revenue stream to buy out permitees and eliminate their grazing allotments. The bill is expected to be introduced in the coming month.

“We have very good information from a number of sources that there are many Southwest ranchers who are very interested in this project,” Egan commented, noting local research. “In other words, they want out, and the buy-out would help them do that.”

Permanently retiring the allotments is the only way of returning public lands to their pristine selves, according to Egan. “People who look at the Western landscape today think that what they see is how it ought to look,” Egan says. “Nobody alive today has seen the land before livestock was unleashed upon it.”

Citing examples of damage, she notes that grazing is the single-leading cause of threatened and endangered species. “The water tables have been dropping throughout the West because of alterations in the vegetative landscape,” she says. “The Western U.S. is desertifying faster than any other place on the planet. It’s a very slow and insidious process, but it’s happening. Make no mistake.”

Rip-off or lifeline

Connie Kay, a Great Old Broads board member, has been cataloging the effects of sheep grazing on numerous areas in the San Juans over the last 25 years. In particular, she has been studying the nearby Mountain View Crest, Ophir Basin, Clear Lake, Porphyry Basin and Columbine Lake areas.

“Year by year, we lose more and more alpine areas,” Kay says. “The Forest Service is looking at grasses and shrubs and reporting healthy vegetation, but we’re having to look harder and harder for diversity of species.”

Citing losses of paintbrush, columbine, alpine phlox, gentian and others, Kay adds, “There are not many places in the San Juan Mountains where you can find rich habitat anymore.”

Egan also cites socio-economic impacts of public lands grazing, saying it is little more than “taxpayer rip-off.” In particular, she cites that 22,000 permitees operate in the West but provide only 3 percent of the nation’s beef.

“We are extending upwards of $500 million annually to keep them in business,” Egan says. “We’re paying to maintain the cowboy lifestyle.”

This is a sentiment shared by John Zwierzycki, chairman of the Weminuche Group of the Sierra Club. “It’s shameful that it costs less for a rancher to graze a cow on public lands for a whole summer than it costs me to feed a cat,” he says.

Brett Shawcroft, chairman of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association Federal Lands Committee, takes a different view of the situation, arguing that after improvements and maintenance the cost of grazing public land is comparable to private land. Still, he says that public-lands grazing is essential to maintain ranching in Colorado. Shawcroft also knows first-hand, operating a cattle ranch in La Jara, south of Alamosa, and grazing his herd on public lands every summer.

“In my opinion, public-lands grazing is very vital for Colorado ranchers, strictly because there’s not that much private land in the state,” he says. “Without grazing on federal lands, we wouldn’t have very much of a cattle industry in this state.”

Shawcroft says that a viable Colorado ranching industry is also about much more than beef production. “A lot of times people don’t understand how crucial those permits are to us,” he says. “If that grazing wasn’t available to a lot of rancher they’d have to sell off their ranches, and they would just become more condos.”

Colorado ranching is only beginning to bounce back from numerous years of hardship according to Shawcroft. “The state’s been in a severe drought, and that’s been tough,” he says. “We’re working to protect the land and that’s meant cutting back on some numbers.”

Shawcroft notes that this fall beef prices have started to climb, but he remains cautious, saying, “Even with what looks like a good year coming, it’s going to take a lot of folks a while to heal up.”

With this in mind, Egan stresses that the Great Old Broads are not insensitive to the needs of ranchers. In fact, she says that the voluntary buy-out would handsomely reward ranchers and enable them to better carry on their operations on private land.

“It’s not that we hate ranchers,” Egan concludes. “I love a good steak and have been in the livestock business myself for much of much of my life. But we’re trying to save the land. Cows need to be places where grass doesn’t have a problem growing. Grazing on public lands is just an idea whose usefulness has passed.”






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