A long-stalled environmental review of grazing in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is set to resume more than 12 years after a rangeland management plan was supposed to have been completed for this dry, though biologically and culturally varied, landscape.
The grazing issue has a tortured history on the 1.9 million-acre monument in southern Utah, pitting environmentalists against ranchers and their supporters in Garfield and Kane counties. Both sides have criticized the Bureau of Land Management for either failing to protect a fragile land owned by all Americans or pushing livestock off the range and undoing a revered Utah tradition.
Now the agency is trying to finish a job that it was given 17 years ago when President Bill Clinton established the monument, reigniting debate with both sides still firmly entrenched.
Clinton's proclamation recognized livestock as a continuing presence on the Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits Plateau and Escalante canyons, but it also ensured grazing would be subject to "applicable laws and regulations."
The monument's 1999 management plan is silent on the controversial subject of grazing, and officials have been kicking that can down the road ever since in the face of lawsuits and failed planning and collaboration efforts.
On Friday, the BLM is expected to post a notice of intent in the Federal Register, announcing the launch of an environmental review with the goal of producing a grazing-management plan, otherwise known as an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
"A grazing plan needs to pay attention to more than just 'grass utilization' and how much forage there is," said David deRoulhac of the Grand Canyon Trust. "BLM processes need to include all kinds of stakeholders and not just permittees. Grazers affect all kinds of values, such as wildlife, ecosystem health and recreation."
Local officials and grazing interests, however, contend the trust and other conservation voices don't deserve a seat.
"Their objective is to eliminate grazing from the monument," Garfield County Commission Chairman Clare Ramsay said. "All they would be doing would be to legitimize their position. We are the elected officials."
The monument currently harbors 82 grazing allotments supporting 102 permit-holders who used a total 11,000 animal unit months, or AUMs, last year. AUM is a measure of how many mother cows and their calves can graze an allotment for one month.
The $1.35 the feds charge per AUM falls far short of covering the grazing program's administrative costs and environmental impacts, leading some conservation groups to ridicule public-lands grazing as "welfare ranching."
Conservationists believe this landscape is too arid to support grazing at current levels and the monument's nonagricultural assets, such as biotic soils, native plants and ancient rock art, are being sacrificed for the sake of a 19th-century enterprise.
"Ranching is a negligible part of the economy of southern Utah, particularly in Garfield County. It's barely measurable," said Jon Marvel, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project. "The politics of Utah is such that BLM has been afraid to complete a grazing plan even though they know that grazing is incompatible with that arid landscape."
The Grand Canyon Trust has mustered the money to buy and retire allotments along the Escalante Corridor and other sensitive places in the monument, provoking lawsuits from local officials.
"You don't want to put cattle in a desert where they are only going to hang out in the riparian areas," said the trust's Mary O'Brien.
However, the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act guarantees ranchers can run cattle on these lands, local officials say, and any reduction in grazing harms the counties.
"Those units were set up for grazing. It doesn't mention recreation or anything else," Ramsay said. He contends the trust's concern with creeks is really an excuse to rid the land of cows.
Still, nearly 97 percent of the monument is actively grazed, according to O'Brien. The remaining 65,400 acres are associated with allotments that conservation interests have bought out through the years.
The BLM has been through this planning process already and issued a draft EIS in 2008. But the scope of the analysis had become so broad and unfocused that officials decided to scrap the document and start afresh.
Officials were reluctant to comment Thursday, but in past public statements, BLM state director Juan Palma has promised that the new review will engage all interested parties, including environmentalists, in a transparent process.
"There is no direction from anywhere [or] anyone about undoing grazing," he told the monument advisory committee last year.
Still, in its last session the Utah Legislature used BLM's alleged efforts to reduce grazing as the basis for designating a "grazing zone" in and around the monument, declaring livestock the "highest management priority" there.
And under the Public Lands Transfer Act passed last year, the monument and another 28 million acres of federal land are to be transferred to the state by the end of 2014. The legality of either law is open to debate, but both send a message that Utah intends to assert as much control over the monument as it can.