Chandra Rosenthal: Utah rangelands suffer as BLM staffing dwindles

Agency does not have enough workers to monitor the health of grazing land.

From the red rock canyons of Moab to the sagebrush flanked shores of Bear Lake, Bureau of Land Management land covers vast swathes of Utah. These nearly 23 million acres of public land draw broad user groups and underpin local economies. On BLM land in Utah, hikers traverse lonely country, off-road enthusiasts rumble over hundreds of miles of backroads, miners and fossil fuel workers labor and ranchers and shepherds drive herds.

Managing these competing uses falls on the men and women who staff the state’s district and field offices. This task, which has always been enormous, has only gotten more difficult as staffing numbers dwindle as outdoor recreation and populations increase user pressure on public lands in Utah. Recently released Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) research reveals the consequences of an agency unable to meet its obligations to protect and manage public lands, especially when it comes to the BLM’s grazing program.

Across the nearly 22 million acres of grazing lands on BLM lands in Utah, 16% of grazing tracts fail to meet rangeland health standards due to livestock grazing, according to BLM data compiled by PEER. An additional 21% of grazing land doesn’t have up-to-date monitoring surveys, leaving the public in the dark about the health of the public land grazed by private individuals and companies. All told, nearly 5 million acres of BLM grazing tracts in Utah either aren’t meeting rangeland health standards or don’t have up to date monitoring reports.

Grazing lands fail to meet rangeland standards when herds damage resources that humans and ecosystems rely on. Some ways that cattle can harm ecosystems include increasing erosion that channels rivers and increases sedimentation, which contributes to flooding and poor water quality in desert environments where every ounce of clean fresh water is vital. Overgrazing by cows, sheep and goats can also destroy sensitive desert soil crusts that take generations to form and promote the spread of invasive species like cheatgrass that drive ever-worsening rangeland wildfires.

These unacceptable conditions are in part symptoms of the chronic neglect suffered by the BLM and its staff. From 2003 to 2020, the agency workforce has been reduced by nearly 2,000 full-time staff, or roughly 20%. At the local level, which means less eyes on the range. Veteran BLM employees in Utah have seen staff dedicated to managing land dwindle over the decades. Where field offices once had half a dozen range specialists, a resolute range rider and resources like aerial surveys to draw on, now, the same offices have a couple of staff that are so behind on their work that they have few other options than to process paperwork and grant extensions without conducting necessary rangeland health surveys. This short staffing means fewer eyes on the range and less ability for the professionals who work at the BLM to safeguard public resources.

The enduring mismanagement of BLM’s grazing program and perpetual short staffing of field offices is a critical blow to the public’s ability to have a say in the management of public lands. For example, of the 112 grazing permits managed by the BLM’s Moab Field Office, only 16 have been fully processed and are covered by current environmental analysis. That means the remaining 96 permits are operating on administrative continuations that serve as rubber stamps for business as usual while blocking the ability of the public to weigh-in on the environmental impacts of cattle and sheep grazing.

As a nonprofit invested in healthy public engagement in federal policy and thriving ecosystems, PEER urges the public, legislators, and BLM leadership to modernize the federal grazing program, ensure public input into the fate of public lands in Utah, and increase staffing levels. Progress is possible, but it requires an agency that values public engagement, has the personnel to do the job and leadership that empowers the men and women on the ground to carry out their duties.

To learn more about the impacts of grazing on public lands, please visit PEER’s interactive rangeland health database at: www.peer.org/mapping-the-range.

Chandra Rosenthal

Chandra Rosenthal is the Rocky Mountain office director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.