Back in the 1990s, Utah rancher Dell LeFevre was riding his federal grazing allotment along the Escalante River when his horse tripped. Its leg fractured as it collapsed, and the rancher spent the next three hours pinned under the disabled animal until he rescued himself in a flash of inspiration.

“It dawned on me when I was in the Army, an old mule guide told me if you pour water in a mule’s ear, they will move,” LeFevre said. He reached for a bottle of warm cola he had with him and emptied it into the ear of his stricken horse, triggering enough motion for the rancher to pull himself free.

Walking back toward home, he decided running his cattle along the river had become too much of a hassle. LeFevre would later cut a deal with environmentalists to abandon his allotments near the Escalante in what was then the new Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Under a new management plan, however, some of this land, including Escalante tributaries such as Death Hollow, may see the return of bovines after two decades without grazing.

In a recent interview from his home in Boulder, the former Garfield County commissioner explained why he agreed to give up his allotments. Federal land managers had gradually narrowed LeFevre’s grazing season to just a few months; extremists shot 24 of his cows and put sand in his vehicles’ engines; and his livestock operation was the target of countless complaints by monument visitors flocking to the Escalante and its side canyons.

“When they took away summer grazing, it grew over, and now you can’t even hike it,” said LeFevre, who at age 80 and undergoing chemotherapy still ranches elsewhere on the monument. “They put so much pressure on me, it wasn’t worth it.”

In the late 1990s, he and several other ranchers sold their allotments, totaling about 30,000 acres, to the Grand Canyon Trust and other conservation funders, which in turn “retired” them from future grazing. The deal won the support of Utah’s governor and wildlife agency and drew plaudits from Gale Norton, a conservative lawyer who served as then-President George W. Bush’s Interior secretary.

The Bureau of Land Management removed a few other marginal allotments from grazing, bringing the total acres closed to livestock to 64,000, covering less than 4% of the monument.

These lands have been cattle-free ever since, but now the BLM could reopen much of it under plans finalized last month for the formerly 1.9 million-acre monument President Donald Trump reduced by nearly half. The move has outraged environmentalists, who say the Interior Department is reneging on an agreement to keep livestock off these lands that feed Escalante tributaries.

“It will needlessly harm the canyon country of the Escalante River, while spelling ruin for market-based grazing retirements, equally to the detriment of ranchers, conservationists and public servants who want to craft level-headed solutions to thorny questions about how to manage our public lands,” the trust said in a prepared statement. “The Trump administration’s decision is a backward step in the delicate project of managing the splendid country of the Escalante.”

Pressure from both sides

The affected lands remain, for the most part, in the easternmost unit of the redrawn monument. As part of its planning process, the BLM also proposed reopening 3,500 acres along the Escalante River and Calf Creek to grazing but decided at the last minute to keep those delicate lands mostly cattle-free.

“We had quite a bit of pressure on both sides of the fence. We had pressure from people that wanted to see grazing there again. And we had pressure from people that didn’t want to see those allotments made available,” Harry Barber, the BLM’s monument manager, said when the plan was drafted last year. “In all honesty, it was because of public input and because of the information that we were receiving that we opted to take the main corridor out, but maintain as potentially available these [other] allotments.”

Barber is now the manager of the BLM’s newly constituted Paria River District, comprised of the reduced Grand Staircase monument, the lands removed from it and the lands administered by the Kanab field office, where he worked as a wildlife biologist at the time the Escalante allotments were retired.

He contends the BLM never agreed to permanently retire them but rather promised to keep livestock off that land until a grazing plan could be crafted for the entire monument. After a number of failed starts, that plan is now finalized and being implemented.

Barber emphasized that it requires the BLM to conduct site-specific environmental analyses on each of the allotments before making a final decision.

“A lot of work has to be done before we can determine whether or not we are actually going to graze these. It’s going to take some time,” Barber said. “A significant amount of data will have to be collected by our staff on these allotments to determine whether or not the forage is there, whether or not there’s a better use for these allotments. We may look at these and say, ‘You know what? These allotments, a portion, a segment of this group, maybe we don’t make those available. Maybe some others we do.’”

Around the same time as the allotments were retired, the BLM placed 15,000 acres in the Escalante watershed into “forage reserves,” areas that could be grazed only periodically under emergencies. Under the new monument plan, these areas could be returned to grazing year after year.

“We’re a multiple-use agency. We find that challenging, but we accept the challenge,” Barber said. “We’re trying to fit grazing in. We’re trying to fit recreation in. We’re trying to fit some mineral components in, and do it in such a way that we’re not negatively impacting our resources. That’s why I trust in my good and knowledgeable staff.”

The BLM is also looking to designate “river gaps” along the Escalante, where cattle may access the river to take pressure off other water sources. Environmentalists are dubious.

“They have not thought this through,” said John Leshy, a Grand Canyon Trust board member who played a key role in designating the monument in 1996 as an attorney in then-President Bill Clinton’s Interior Department. “If you let the cows in the tributaries, how are you going to keep them out of the river bottom?”

Cattle friendly?

With its serpentine canyons and sandstone-sculpted mesas, the Escalante region is a scenic wonder, but it is also a difficult, dangerous place to ranch. Cattle get wedged in slot canyons, lost, or stuck in mud. They fall from ledges. Conservationists complain that they trample fragile plants and soils and congregate in streams, which they defile with their waste.

“Who is going to want to go into these steep and treacherous landscapes where they could get injured or lose their cattle?” asked Travis Bruner, the Grand Canyon Trust’s conservation director. “The damage that could be done in one season would undo those two decades of conservation.”

Buyouts like those brokered by the trust are a way to compensate ranchers looking to get out of the business or move their operations to more suitable locations, according to Bruner and Leshy.

“To reverse a two-decades-old agreement, with willing buyers and willing sellers, to retire permits puts a stranglehold on philanthropists interested in protecting the land, but also on the freedom of ranchers to decide their future for themselves,” Bruner said. “Funders won’t come forward if these closures are not permanent.”

Bruner believes the public has made a huge investment in restoring small parts of the monument that are now healing from historic grazing. Allowing cattle back negates that investment while providing minimal benefits.

Meanwhile, grazing persists on the vast majority of the monument. Retired allotments give monument managers a priceless look at what happens to this land when it is not grazed, according to trust conservationist Mary O’Brien.

However, putting land off-limits to cattle is controversial among Garfield County leaders, who see the region’s culture as deeply intertwined with ranching. Taking cattle off the land is akin to erasing heritage.

For his part, LeFevre would like to see cattle back in places where they had been evicted.

“It’s not doing anybody any good now,” he said. “I’m all for it in a lot of ways, but it’s going to be rough. They tore out the waterlines and the trails are overgrown. It’s a tough bank. You have to spend a lot of cowboy time to get to it.”

Given the challenges of ranching in Escalante country, it remains to be seen if there will be any takers if the BLM decides to welcome cattle back on retired allotments.