Collaboration. It's a word all too seldom associated with land-use and environmental issues. But discussion and compromise are necessary if the diverse, and often divergent, interests of ranchers, government, conservationists and the public are to be protected.
The cows and sheep that provide a livelihood for ranchers, and elk, a favorite target of hunters, now share groves of quaking aspens, trees that are much-beloved by Utahns. But can the animals and "quakies" co-exist without the beasts destroying the vegetation that sustains them? Fortunately, a group of people who are often on opposite sides of such issues is working together to come up with an answer.
A 175,000-acre mountain in Fishlake National Forest will become a laboratory for experiments in how aspen groves can provide feed for the three species and remain growing, replenishing organisms. If something doesn't change, the groves on Monroe Mountain will be replaced by stands of evergreens or sagebrush. The animals that share the space are eating the new sprouts and young trees before they get a chance to develop.
Realizing their livestock and prey might be getting too much of a good thing, representatives of ranching and hunting interests rightly agreed to meet with the U.S. Forest Service, the Grand Canyon Trust and Utah Environmental Congress to figure out what to do.
Many ranchers in the area can't afford to feed sheep and cattle on hay that costs $200 a ton, so keeping their grazing leases is imperative. Conservationists want to maintain the ecosystem created by the trees and simply protect the beauty of the aspen groves. State wildlife officials who have managed the Monroe Mountain elk herd to produce some huge trophy animals want to keep the habitat in place.
Quaking aspens in a grove are part of one huge plant continually sending out new sprouts from the roots that then grow into saplings, and eventually, into the tall, white-barked quakies that color the mountainsides golden in the autumn.
The youngest of the adult trees on Monroe Mountain are 20 to 30 years old. Without a younger generation to take their places when they die, the forest will disappear. The group is discussing alternatives, including fencing portions of the grazing areas to keep cattle and sheep at bay so struggling trees can successfully regenerate.
When it comes to natural resources and the various ways they can be used by humans, it's becoming apparent that discussion, compromise and collaboration will provide the only sustainable pathway into the future.