Grazing on Public Lands: Here to Stay or Gone Forever? Deals between Dept of Interior, Grand Canyon Trust Put Local Economies and Residents at Risk

Fourth In A Series, By Toni Thayer


In recent years, the residents and economies of rural, southern Utah have suffered heavy financial losses as resource production on surrounding public lands has ground to a halt. In today’s world, financial obligations are met and budgets are balanced by combining incomes from several sources.

Through the years, grazing has been one of those pieces of the income pie for hundreds of southern Utah citizens. It has played an important role in western culture, the counties’ economies and the residents’ survival.

For the most part, grazing is truly a “local business”, one that is owned and operated by a local resident. It not only provides area residents with needed products, but it also supports other related, local businesses through their purchases. Profits from local businesses remain at home, continuing to work throughout the community.

Wes Curtis, Utah State Planning Coordinator, responded for Utah Governor Mike Leavitt on the ramifications of the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) recent decisions to stop grazing on four allotments in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM).

“The governor is quite concerned and quite disappointed,” he stated in a Feb. 5, telephone interview. According to Curtis, one of the governor’s main concerns is the economic impact of removing grazing from public lands.

Curtis explained, “It’s comparable to a rental unit. If there are no renters, it still has value, but that value is lost when it is not rented. Likewise, the value is lost to the local economies if grazing permits are retired and not used for their purposes.”

He went on to say that the only way the governor’s office would be satisfied is “if BLM retires grazing as a use, they must justify their actions with hard science showing the need.”

The Environmental Assessments (EAs) supporting the BLM decisions acknowledge that the cessation of grazing “could have an affect on local economies, but the net balance of costs and benefits is unknown”. The documents assume that affected permittees will continue to graze at the same levels in other areas around the counties, and therefore, quite simply, the local economies will remain unchanged.

However, the EAs fail to consider the impacts of the removal of private property grazing rights and their associated water rights from the counties’ total resources available to support the grazing industry. The cessation of grazing on public lands ends the transfer of these asset titles from one private individual to another and turns over land and water rights to U.S. government employees for their determination of land use.

The EAs also legitimatize new BLM procedures to eliminate 13.2 percent of grazing on the GSENM. Presumably, these newly implemented procedures allowing private donors to buy out grazing permits on public lands would be used by BLM if the Grand Canyon Trust or any other group initiates similar proposals in the future. The EAs don’t recognize the long-term effects of these possible cumulative decisions to stop grazing on public lands.

Kane and Garfield Counties disagreed with BLM’s economic assessment that the Decisions to stop grazing would result in a total loss of only $1,712 to the joint economies and commissioned an analysis by the Southern Utah University (SUU) School of Business. The university’s preliminary analysis, prepared March 30, 2002 by Associate Professor of Economics, John D. Groesbeck, Ph.D., arrives at drastically different conclusions than the BLM economic assessment.

Dr. Groesbeck’s study relied upon historical economic grazing data and “the actual flow of goods and services between and among economic sectors”. The study estimated the initial impact of loss of calf and cow sales and then computed “the impacts that the loss of income has on all the other sectors of the economy”. It identified related grazing spending for transportation, labor, vaccinations, services, etc. as 95.7 percent made within the region.

The study determined that “elimination of grazing rights on heretofore multiple-use lands will cause negative economic impacts on the economies of Kane and Garfield Counties. From this preliminary analysis, the economic impacts will range between 2.6 and 3.4 percent of the total volume of economic activity in the two-county region (about $200 million).” Under different scenarios, annual economic losses for the two counties range from: 69 to150 jobs, $3.1 million to $6.8 million economic output, and $177,311 to $386,260 sales tax revenue.

The reality of this “free market approach” for establishing public policy is riddled with uncertainties of whether the new BLM procedures can withstand a legal challenge as well as the possibility of the land use reverting back to grazing with the 2004 completion of the BLM’s grazing Environmental Impact Study now underway. This shaky foundation and the constantly changing conditions have left both sides of the market hanging in limbo.

Bill Hedden, the Utah Conservation Director for the Flagstaff, Ariz. environmental group that buys the grazing permits, the Grand Canyon Trust, said the risk to their investors is too great until the procedure for the buyouts has been clarified by the Department of Interior, which oversees BLM. In a Jan 26 telephone interview, Hedden said, “We’re not buying any more grazing permits until 2004. No one is willing to fund it right now.”

Clare Ramsay, Garfield County Commissioner, reiterated this same position for the ranchers. In an interview on Feb. 7, Ramsay noted, “Ranchers do not want to pay thousands of dollars for a grazing permit they may not be able to use. Permit holders are stranded with valid permits, but no willing buyers. Our fear is this is just the beginning, and we don’t want to see permittees hurt financially or devastating effects to the economies of the counties.”

This “new environmentalism” approach to end grazing on public lands seems to stem from Lynn Scarlett, current Department of Interior Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget and her advisor, Karl Hess, Jr.

In 1995, the Cato Institute, a private think tank, published Hess’ policy analysis, Beyond the Grazing Fee: An Agenda for Rangeland Reform. His paper proposes reforms for public rangelands using market determination of public land uses and decentralized public land control.

Scarlett, former President of the Reason Public Policy Institute think tank, defines “new environmentalism” in her testimony of May 7, 2002, before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Resources as market-based efforts to “help build a healthier environment, dynamic economies, and sustainable communities”. She recognizes that the Department of Interior “must work in partnership with the people who live on the private lands that border our National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, and other federal lands, and work on those lands or have access to resources on those lands.”

Somehow, through all of the analysis performed, the ranchers’ private property rights and the counties’ economies have been pushed to the background. Public comment no longer seems relevant to governmental employees when the deal is struck by the U.S. Department of Interior and the Grand Canyon Trust behind closed doors.

This influence by unknown, private investors to change public land policies goes directly against the democratic principles of the United States. The “new environmentalism” approach has created unforeseen problems, and it remains the responsibility of governmental employees and elected officials to fix the mess they’ve spawned and to correct the hardships they’ve placed upon the ranchers and their ranching communities.

Our coverage continues next week as we continue to delve into local grazing issues.

Other Articles in This Series:

#1 New BLM Procedures To Stop Grazing On GSENM, 1/30/03

#2 Broken Promises, Empty Words, Hiding in the Cracks of Laws, 2/6/03

#3 Out Front and Behind the Scenes, 2/13/03

Counties Respond: Kane, Garfield County Commissioners Challenge BLM, The Trust, 2/13/03

Article online at:


Toni Thayer

P O Box 131 435-826-4663

Escalante, UT 84726

Permission to reprint is granted with attribution to:

Toni Thayer: or email

Garfield County News: 435-679-8730 or email


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