July 30, 2005

Silver City Sun-News

Editorial: Don’t undo a workable solution

We watch with interest — and some dismay — a contest of wills in Utah that could well have significance for us in southern New Mexico, or anywhere else in the west where public land must serve often-competing interests.

It involves grazing rights on BLM land in Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Designation of the area as a monument late in the Clinton Administration enraged ranchers and Republicans in Utah, who called it “the stealth monument.” The opposition said monument status would imperil ranching activities that go back four, five and six generations.

One such rancher is Dell LeFevre, a fifth-generation rancher on the spectacular red rock canyons and mesas of the Escalante River Basin. He fought bitterly against the monument designation and he detests environmentalists and what they stand for. “I’m a bitter old cowboy,” he says.

Enter Bill Hedden, an environmentalist and executive director of the Grand Canyon Trust. As part of an ongoing effort to reclaim the Escalante Basin as a natural area, Hedden bought the permits that entitled LeFevre to graze his cattle on the BLM land. Sans cows, native grasses and shrubs are reappearing in an area that was once shorn of them, and endangered native wildlife will follow. That makes the environmentalists happy.

LeFevre is happy, too. He used the money from Hedden to purchase new grazing rights on higher ground that’s easier for him and his cows to get to.

Win-win, right?

Not so fast.

The politicians of southern Utah have butted in and persuaded the Bush administration to reopen the land to cattle under a regulation that lets the BLM decide if the land is “chiefly valuable” for grazing. Hedden argues that the fees he paid LeFevre prove that the land is “chiefly valuable” for hiking, recreation, esthetics and nature, but the government isn’t listening.

Hedden and LeFevre reached a free market solution to a touchy land-use issue that made both sides of the argument happy.

Government should butt out. Two hard-heads in Utah have given the west a good template for resolving tough issues. Let it stand.