October 4, 2006

Salt Lake Tribune

A pointless fight: Defense of grazing totally misplaced

The elected officials of two southern Utah counties may pretend, even to themselves, that their protracted lawsuit over grazing rights in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a fight against overreaching environmentalists and a misdirected federal agency.

But what Kane and Garfield counties are really fighting is the march of time. So it is no wonder they keep losing.

The latest - and, hopefully, the last - setback for the counties came Friday in U.S. District Court. Judge Tena Campbell correctly ruled that the counties had no business trying to stop the willing sale of $1.5 million worth of federal grazing permits to the privately funded willing buyers of the Grand Canyon Trust.

The Bureau of Land Management, which holds the land for all Americans, had approved the sale and its own administrative law judge later upheld the action.

But, at a cost to state taxpayers now approaching $125,000, the counties persisted. They claimed that, because the Grand Canyon Trust first pondered retiring the land from grazing, then began making minimal use of the permits while the area's land use plan was under way, the permits should go instead to ranchers who were eager to use the permits to their fullest.

The judge rightly dismissed the counties' estimate of $170,000 in lost annual revenue as pure conjecture. She might also have noted that, even if true, it would be no different than losses local government always suffers when the marketplace causes any business to close or relocate.

It's hard to imagine a county suing a grocer or auto dealer who decided the market was too slim and left town. Harder still to imagine government trying to stop said retailer from selling his property as a way of minimizing losses.

Given that the two biggest threats to the ranching way of life are over-grazing and the monopolization of cattle buying power in fewer and fewer corporate hands, the trust's plan to retire marginal lands and leave the most sustainably productive lands in use is actually good for ranching.

At a time when that can be said about so little, the Kane and Garfield county fight is not just pointless, it is downright harmful to the very interests local officials claim to be defending.