Salt Lake Tribune

January 21, 2003

Editorial: No Conspiracy

Some folks are never satisfied. Ranchers who use public lands for their cattle long have lambasted environmental groups for using the courts to stop, or at least stall, environmental degradation from those uses. Yet, when environmental activists play by the ranching industry's own rules, the ranchers still cry foul.

That appears to be the situation in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, where the Grand Canyon Trust has purchased 5 percent of the grazing permits available in the 1.9 million-acre monument from ranchers at a cost of $1.5 million. The trust does not intend to run cattle on the land. Instead, it has asked the federal Bureau of Land Management to retire the permits, thus reducing or eliminating cattle on those acres.

The Kanab-based Canyon Country Ranchers Association, a group of 80 ranchers who were not involved in the transactions, has protested the sales. The association claims there is a conspiracy between the trust and the BLM to end cattle ranching on monument land.

There is no conspiracy. The trust has simply asked the BLM to do what the Taylor Grazing Act requires whenever a rancher gives up his permit: Review the lands to determine if they are "chiefly valuable" for cattle grazing. The trust bought the permits in areas it determined were not suitable for cows. The BLM has agreed with those assessments and supports retiring the permits.

As the ranchers must surely know, this is not some grand scheme to bilk them out of public grazing allotments. Yet, the association claims the trust and the BLM have set a bad precedent that will enable environmental groups to "start buying out ranchers." Regrettably, the only thing conspiring against the ranchers is southern Utah's arid climate. The monument gets very little water in normal years, and that is why ranching in southern Utah -- even with federal assistance -- has always been a mostly marginal enterprise.

The ranchers who sold their leases to the trust left willingly because they understand that grazing cattle in the desert, particularly in this fourth year of a relentless drought, costs more than it is worth and also inflicts damage on the land that may be irreversible.

Crying conspiracy does not reflect well on the members of the Canyon Country Ranchers Association, who seem not to be able to stand it that a savvy environmental group played by the same rules governing federal grazing leases and simply chose not to use the permits to run cattle on the land.

And for that we applaud the trust.