Utah rancher enjoys free home on the range, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers

For 45 years, a San Juan County family has lived in a farm compound on public lands in Fry Canyon, now inside Bears Ears, where they hold BLM grazing permits.

(Google Earth) A digital aerial view of Fry Canyon, within the Bears Ears National Monument boundaries in San Juan County. The Bureau of Land Management has allowed ranchers Sandy and Gail Johnson to live on public land in the canyon, now inside Bears Ears, without rent for 45 years.

Nestled between redrock mesas in Utah’s Fry Canyon is a 27-acre ranching compound complete with fenced corrals and pens, a home, trailers, outbuildings, tanks, vehicles, pasture and an ephemeral creek running through. For decades, San Juan County ranchers Sandy and Gail Johnson and their family have used this site to live and oversee their sprawling livestock operations in what is now Bears Ears National Monument.

A casual observer passing by would figure the compound and home occupy private land, one of many inholdings inside the sea of public land in southern Utah. But the site, dubbed a “cow camp,” actually is public land, which the Bureau of Land Management has allowed to be used as a permanent residence rent-free for decades.

While the Johnsons say their residence and use of this site is in full compliance with the law, critics contend such use has been allowed in apparent defiance of the BLM’s own policies and without environmental studies in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

“This long-standing situation shows the BLM has been ignoring federal laws, its own binding regulations and agency policy,” said BLM retiree Dennis Willis, who lives in Price and remains active in conservation causes. “Meanwhile, Johnson is living on, farming on, occupying public lands within a national monument, tax free, rent free, while objecting to anyone using the term ‘welfare rancher.’”

What began as a camp 140 years ago has evolved into a year-round residence and farm on land that is owned by all Americans and is now managed as a national treasure, according to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Jonathan Ratner of the Western Watersheds Project and other material obtained by Willis.

According to Gail Johnson, however, a full-time home is exactly what the federal Taylor Grazing Act allows in the Johnsons’ situation because their grazing allotment is so far from any town. While State Route 95 passes through the allotment, much of the 261,000 acres that form their ranch is miles from any paved roads.

“We have to live here to take care of the cows. You can’t do that when you are running back and forth from town. Hauling water there is a full-time job. A lot of our ranch is an hour or more from Fry Canyon,” Johnson said. “We are good people. We aren’t living here rent-free illegally.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

She said her home is authorized under Section 4 of the 1934 grazing law, which allows for the construction of “fences, wells, reservoirs, and other improvements necessary to the care and management of the permitted livestock.”

To critics like Ratner and Willis, however, the Johnson home is illustrative of what they and other critics see as a pattern of the BLM failing to hold livestock permit holders accountable to rules designed to protect rangeland health and the public interest.

There is no evidence in any of the records released to the public, for instance, that the BLM signed off on the Johnsons’ “cow camp” or inspected it to determine if it met the terms of its permit — or was even necessary.

Gail Johnson, however, said the BLM has documented all the improvements associated with the residence and has photographs of them on file.

The BLM repeatedly declined to answer questions about the Johnsons’ use of Fry Canyon.

Monument opponents

A fifth-generation rancher and Army veteran who served in Vietnam, Sandy Johnson, 73, has been the face of San Juan County’s anti-monument movement since 2015, when five tribes launched a public campaign for a national monument to protect sacred lands encircling Bears Ears Buttes.

On his way out of office in 2016, President Barack Obama used his power under the Antiquities Act to designate 1.3 million acres, including nearly all of the Johnsons’ grazing allotment, as Bears Ears National Monument.

Since then, the Johnsons have appeared in national and local media, claiming the monument designation would impinge on their ability to use the land and usher in unwanted visitors who would wreck the landscape.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Bears Ears buttes in 2021.

President Donald Trump drastically reduced the monument in 2017, cutting out more than 1 million acres, including all of the Johnsons’ allotment.

Johnson would go on to intervene in a lawsuit several tribes filed to reverse Trump’s decision, claiming restoring the monument could put him out of business and obstruct access to his home. The 2016 monument proclamation “altered the regulatory regime for use on the public land where I graze cattle,” he wrote in a sworn declaration filed with the court. “Should [Trump’s] Proclamation be rescinded, my ranching business would be negatively affected by increased regulatory oversight over my allotment and uncertainty about whether and how many cattle I could graze in the future.”

In October 2021, President Joe Biden restored the monument’s original boundaries, triggering a suit from Utah officials alleging Biden’s move was an abuse of the Antiquities Act.

Cow camp or residence?

What’s been called the “Fry Canyon cow camp” was established long before the monument, even before the Johnsons were in the picture or the BLM existed. In those early days, the spot was very remote and difficult to reach, but today it sits off a paved highway, 54 miles from Blanding to the east and 32 miles from Hite.

In 1961, rancher Hardy Redd of La Sal submitted a “range use application and permit” to the BLM, seeking permission to “use and maintain” a camp where Redd ran the Indian Creek Cattle Co. The stated purpose was to “herd cows on permitted range” and the value of the improvements, described as a house, corral and holding pasture, were valued at $2,500.

The Johnsons in 1978 acquired the Fry Canyon camp and White Canyon grazing allotment on 261,000 acres of public land in and near Fry Canyon, spanning about 17% of the monument’s current footprint and spilling into Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

By this time, State Road 95 between Blanding and Hite had been paved, greatly improving Fry Canyon’s access to civilization.

According to the documents, Sandy Johnson later sought authorization to install numerous improvements to the camp. A 1989 range improvement permit proposed a salt trailer, a vehicle shed, hay shed, granary, a trailer, big house trailer, a small house trail, corrals, water tank and water line. Included in the proposed improvements, valued at $29,700, was a satellite dish, presumably needed to improve television reception.

“BLM approved the permit on the same day it was submitted, again without any NEPA compliance and [the] required BLM inspection not completed,” Willis said.

(Jonathan Ratner | Western Watersheds Project) Sandy and Gail Johnson's ranch home, pictured May 16, 2022, occupies public land in Bears Ears National Monument, where their families have run cattle for more than a century. The Bureau of Land Management has allowed them to live on this site, which serves as a headquarters for their 261,000-acre ranch, in Fry Canyon without rent for 45 years.

According to a 1999 addendum to that document, the small house trailer was replaced by a large one valued at $80,000. This is likely a reference to the double-wide trailer that now occupies the Johnson compound, installed atop a foundation. The permit application is silent on the purpose and need for these improvements.

“The administrative record for this case is sorely lacking,” Willis said. “The BLM has never considered any of this in a NEPA document. They have never considered changed circumstances with the paving of the road or the designation of the land as part of the Bears Ears National Monument.”

The Johnsons’ permit authorizes them to run 456 cattle on their allotment, allowing them access to 5,400 animal-unit months, or AUMs, on the public range. An AUM is defined as the amount of forage a cow-calf pair consumes in a month.

She rejected the contention they occupy the land for free because they pay federal grazing fees for the use of their federal grazing allotment. Johnson declined to say what their annual fee is, but based on the BLM’s current fee structure and the size of the Johnsons’ herd, it would have been about $7,300 last year.

The Johnsons also hold a permit for a summer camp they call Hideout on their allotment’s high-elevation summer range. Additionally, they own a 277-acre parcel about nine miles west of the Fry Canyon home, which documents identify as the ranch’s “base property.”

But this property is too high in elevation and lacks water for use as the ranch headquarters, Gail Johnson said. She believes the Fry Canyon site is the most logical place to run a ranch from today, as it was a century ago.

“I don’t know how you expect us to run this ranch if we don’t live here and the BLM won’t sell it to us. So what do we do?” she said. “We’ve been here for 45 years and no one has had a problem with us.”

Disproportionate influence

The Johnsons are among San Juan County’s most prominent residents, but their stature went national after Bears Ears was designated. Sandy has been the go-to rancher for quotes explaining how the monument would put an end to this traditional way of life, even though the monument proclamation states livestock grazing would be allowed to continue. His words and image appeared on Fox News, in National Geographic and elsewhere.

“We need these jobs. We need this to live,” he said in a 2017 story posted by South Dakota-based Tri-State Livestock News, headlined “Monumental mayhem.” “Our grandkids want to take over this ranch someday. We’re doing this for them.”

Meanwhile, the Johnsons have enjoyed significant influence on the monument’s future. For example, Gail Johnson was appointed by the Trump administration to the monument’s advisory committee. When Trump’s Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, came to town in 2017 to gauge San Juan County residents’ views of the monument, Sandy Johnson was among the ranchers he listened to.

While the BLM wouldn’t say much about the Johnsons’ special deal, officials did say they are inventorying all the improvements made to the parcel since 1997 and will document them in a forthcoming report.

The agency intends to ensure monument lands and resources are protected as envisioned in [Biden’s] Presidential Proclamation 10285, according to BLM spokeswoman Rachel Wootton.

Biden’s proclamation reestablishing the monument indicates livestock grazing will continue on these lands as before but subject to “appropriate terms and conditions” consistent with the care of the monument’s protected resources. What those terms and conditions mean for the Johnsons and dozen other ranching families will likely be made more clear in the monument management plan the BLM and U.S. Forest Service are crafting in coordination with the five tribes that proposed the monument.

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