The Continental Divide runs above Elk Creek in the Weminuche Wilderness, where sheep grazing could be ending under a Forest Service proposal. The public comment period on that proposal ends Mon. June 16./Photo by Steve Eginoire

Sunset on the Weminuche

Forest Service proposes to end grazing on San Juan wilderness lands

by Tracy Chamberlin

As the sun sets on the ranching culture in the Weminuche Wilderness, it’s also setting on the public’s opportunity to add their two cents to the conversation.

In May, the U.S. Forest Service released an Environmental Assessment that looked at ending sheep grazing in the nearby wilderness area. The draft document examined specific impacts that decision could have on soil, water, vegetation, recreation and wildlife, as well as social and economic impacts.

Hearing voices...

To comment or view the Environmental Assessment:
- Write Mary Jones, P.O. Box 439, Bayfield, 81122
- ?email
 -? or email
Deadline to comment is Mon., June 16.

Currently, 13 grazing allotments exist. The proposal is to close seven of those, leaving five open to sheep grazing and one open for cattle. However, the five sheep allotments would include a “sunset clause” meant to eventually phase out sheep grazing altogether.

While the Forest Service concludes in its assessment that “the landscape is generally in good condition,” it also asserts that most natural resources would benefit from 4 the proposed action.

Other outcomes from the proposal include making adjustments to the boundaries of the current allotments; adding some fences and water developments; using “adaptive management strategies” to implement the plan and monitor its effectiveness; taking steps to minimize the risk of disease transmission between domestic and bighorn sheep; and, reducing conflicts between recreationists and sheep.

The final day for comment on the Environmental Assessment, or EA, is Mon., June 16.

Jimbo Buickerood, public lands coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance, requested an extension on that deadline, but has yet to hear back from Forest Service officials.

Buickerood said the 164-page document contains a lot of information, but the real reason to extend the public’s opportunity to comment is the high level of interest.

Typically, this type of assessment only elicits a handful of commenters during the first rounds of public outreach, known as scoping. This project racked up 57 people, many with multiple submissions.

The EA takes a look at four possible decisions in detail:

n No Action, which would mean no livestock grazing in the Weminuche;

n No Change, which would leave the current number of 13 allotments open to grazing;

n Adaptive Management/Forage Reserves, which would allow grazing on the six allotments that are currently being used and would leave the other seven open in case of emergency situations like fire or drought;

n Adaptive Management/Close Vacant Allotments, which is the proposed action and would only leave open the six allotments, closing the other seven.

From a socioeconomic standpoint, the Forest Service maintains that the communities most likely to be affected by the project are “those in which the permittees and/or their primary business managers live, pay taxes and do business.”

All of those are located in La Plata County, where most of the project’s acreage lies. It also stretches across Hinsdale and San Juan counties in Colorado.

“The importance of the ranching sector is highlighted more as a social benefit than as an economic base to the area as a whole,” the assessment reads. “It is an important part of the people’s heritage in La Plata County.”

It’s understood that some ranches might not be able to adapt the new management practices mandated by the proposed action, and that the profit margins could be too small to stay in business. “Some ranching operations could possibly fail,” the assessment reads.

However, Buickerood said other socioeconomic factors are at play that the Forest Service does not address, like the effects of climate change, hunting, population increases and, most importantly, the value of watersheds. 

“The Florida watershed is a central municipal water source,” Buickerood explained, “and this (EA) has to do with grazing in that watershed.”

According to the Forest Service, private lands located in the Weminuche like those surrounding the city reservoir are not available for grazing, but if those lands are not fenced, “grazing likely occurs.”

Buickerood said heavy use due to livestock grazing does affect the watershed, although some would disagree. He added that water is probably the most important eco-service element, which is defined as a service that an ecosystem provides to a community.

For example, exactly what kind of water purification service could a pristine ecosystem provide to a watershed versus one affected by livestock grazing? It’s a question Buickerood thinks the Forest Service should ask.

He doesn’t know what the outcome of that kind of investigation would be, but does believe it would lead to a more informed decision.

Although livestock grazing is considered an appropriate use of public lands under the San Juan National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan, the Forest Service determined that the proposed action “is needed at this time because in the early 1990s, the courts determined that livestock grazing permits should not be re-issued without sufficient National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis.”

Part of the NEPA process is the assessment now available for comment, which is followed by the Forest Service’s response to those comments, possible changes to the assessment, an appeals process and, eventually, a final decision by Forest Service officials.

If the proposed action does become the final word, the sun will set on sheep grazing in the Weminuche.