Utah’s latest land battle pits ranchers against not the feds but the state

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cattle graze on Garfield County's Aquarius Plateau in the Dixie National Forest. Citing the importance of livestock to Garfield's culture, economy and heritage, county leaders passed a resolution to preserve grazing on state trust lands and are considering an ordinance that would obligate private property owners to accommodate historic cattle operations.

Born in Garfield County on his grandfather’s birthday 87 years ago, James Robert Ott was named after the patriarch who was among the first to homestead near the Utah settlement of Cannonville, where the family continues to run cattle just north of what would become Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Ott, who goes by Bob, bought an old sheep permit on state trust lands on 519 acres at a place called Yellow Creek abutting his property, just south of his Garfield County town under Bryce Canyon’s pink cliffs. The Otts converted the permit to cattle and have kept their herds there ever since.

But much to the dismay of Garfield County leaders, the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), a land-management agency that prioritizes raising revenue for public education above all other considerations, last month canceled the Otts' grazing permit.

After 50 years of grazing this land, Ott has 90 days to clear his animals, fencing and other improvements off two parcels, which sold Oct. 24 at auction for the princely sum of $774,000 to a nonrancher.

“We don’t want to buy that property. You can’t develop it. You can’t raise crops on it. It’s too hilly,” Ott said. “School trust lands are a bit of a thorn in our side. It bothers us we have a lease, and the next thing we know, they sell it.”

Ranchers consider their grazing allotments on federal land a property right that cannot be revoked without just cause. But trust lands are a different creature, managed not for multiple use or public enjoyment but rather to maximize revenue for schools.

As southern Utah’s scenic lands become more valuable, SITLA has increasingly looked beyond grazing on its holdings that are rich in beauty. Sometimes they are sold to the highest bidder; other times they are developed or tapped for minerals.

The agency’s aggressive development posture has often angered environmentalists, tribes and neighboring property owners. But its willingness to evict longtime ranchers is now alienating conservative rural leaders who have long championed SITLA as a driver of economic development.

Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock sees sales and development that displace ranchers as an existential threat to rural Utah’s culture and heritage.

“Just 3.5 percent of [Garfield] County is private land. You have to have federal and state lands to graze on. We absolutely have to have it,” Pollock said. “We consider SITLA public lands. These lands were zoned [for agriculture] when we started having trouble with [federal] agencies putting restrictions on grazing.”

More than 90 percent of Utah’s 3 million acres of trust lands are grazed — just as the state’s public lands outside of national parks are available for grazing. As a revenue source, however, grazing barely registers, and trust lands managers say they must look elsewhere to meet their fiduciary obligations.

“While grazing is important, we simply cannot let it take precedence over all economic opportunities that present themselves,” SITLA Deputy Director Kim Christy wrote in an email. “SITLA takes seriously its relationship with that industry. However, [fiscal year] 2018 cash proceeds from grazing yielded $1.332 million to the trust, while all revenue-generating programs combined generated $70.87 million.”

The Yellow Creek parcels netted SITLA just $128 a year. It would take more than 6,000 years of grazing to match what St. George-based sculptor Lyman Whitaker paid for this land at auction.

Pollock has been a leading voice in Utah’s fight to take ownership of federal land, but he has now become disenchanted with the state’s trust lands administration, led by Kamas rancher and retired lawmaker David Ure.

“SITLA has more lawyers than the federal government,” Pollock said. “If you go up against SITLA, you are going to have some serious muscle come back on you. If something doesn’t happen, we are going to have a mess on our hands.”

While Gov. Gary Herbert has complained about some SITLA oil and gas leases in the past, he sides with Ure in the Garfield controversy.

“SITLA has a very important responsibility and we support that. We think generally this shouldn’t be seen as a zero-sum game,” said the governor’s spokesman Paul Edwards. “When SITLA is seeking to get a decent return on their lands, that should support the local economy in an important way, whether or not that is the traditional use."

Under reforms implemented in 1994 that ended decades of self-dealing and sweetheart deals, SITLA is overseen by an independent board credited with building up the school trust from almost nothing to more than $2 billion.

The governor has a representative on the board, but he is not interested in “micromanaging” the agency and selecting winners and losers, according to Edwards. “There is a market that is giving strong signals as to what economic activity is valued by consumers."

While southern Utah is known for ranching, these arid lands are not well-suited for sustaining cattle lines bred for Northern Europe’s damp climates. It can take hundreds of acres to provide forage for a single animal.

All of SITLA’s Garfield County holdings support 8,720 animal-unit months, or AUMs, each representing the forage consumed by a cow-calf pair in a month, according to Christy. Grazing there nets the agency $48,131 annual, hardly enough to cover a single teacher’s salary and benefits.

Furthering the county’s ire, SITLA recently canceled a grazing permit on trust lands near Bullfrog, where developers propose a fancy tent resort for “glamping,” an expression combining the words camping and glamour.

Citing the importance of livestock to Garfield’s way of life and social fabric, county leaders responded by passing a resolution in August to “use any and all legal means at its disposal” to preserve grazing on state trust lands. For good measure, county commissioners also imposed a six-month moratorium on any new glamping operations.

They also proposed an ordinance that would ostensibly obligate property owners to accommodate historic cattle operations.

The draft ordinance would require “any and all privately owned incorporated land” to be used “for livestock grazing purposes only.” The language alarmed many property owners, but Pollock said it is intended to target SITLA rangelands that the agency sells.

“It was written to hold up in court, not to regulate private property,” Pollock said. The idea would be to ensure such land would remain available for grazing, but last month the commission tabled the ordinance in the face of opposition.

The commission’s moves risk fettering Garfield County to an industry that is losing economic relevance and undermine trust lands’ legal obligations, according to SITLA bosses

The proposed resort, named after the nearby community of Ticaboo, sits just a few miles from Lake Powell’s Bullfrog Marina. It represents $200 million in investment, complementing the governor’s economic development initiative to create 25,000 new jobs in rural Utah, Christy said. The project could bring $26 million into the school trust. In contrast, that parcel supports just 24 AUMs, netting about $140 a year from grazing.

“It is ironic that [Pollock] opposes an opportunity to see lands privatized, as well as being added to the county tax rolls,” Christy said. He stressed SITLA goes out of its way to maintain strong, cooperative relationships with county leadership and residents.

“With thousands of leases in nearly every county of the state, these types of disagreements over development will occur,” he added, “but we have made, and will continue to make, every effort to seek and implement reasonable resolutions to these types of conflicts.”

As for Bob Ott, he said his family members are in no immediate danger of going out of business since they hold federal allotments and private leases elsewhere. But removing the fencing, squeeze chutes, hay and feet lot off the former trust lands will be a burden.

“I sure would like to talk to the fellow who bought it. We would like to work with him and pay a yearly fee until he decides what to do,” Ott said. “We plan on taking care of the next generation, and we would like to take care of this land. We raise beef, and it would mean a lot if we could maintain control.”